A winter storm had mostly spared greater Boston and Jordan Hall filled to capacity, for Igor Levit’s Celebrity Series of Boston recital Saturday evening, just a few days before the pianist’s 36th birthday. Local audiences know him from his Boston premier recital in the Celebrity Series’ Debut Artist Series at Pickman Hall, in 2017, and concerto performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood. In 2018 he received the quadrennial Gilmore Artist Award for a concert pianist. During the lockdown of the COVID pandemic, Levit developed an international following, as tens of thousands watched his daily streamed House Concerts. A crescendo of accolades have a followed his consistently satisfying recordings. This return recital was highly anticipated.
The Russian-born/German pianist’s first recording, produced when the artist was 25, comprised Beethoven’s final five piano sonatas, the last three of which he gave at this recital. Some found it audacious for a young pianist to introduce himself with these mature masterpieces, but that recording and his subsequent traversal of all 32 for Sony, proved he had much offer.
Opp. 109, 110, and 111 pose challenges for the performer as well as the audience. Charles Rosen commented that these works, more than the other Beethoven sonatas, require some prior understanding on the part of the listener; their meaning is hard to grasp with naïve listening. These were the last sonatas that Beethoven wrote for any instrument. From his earliest piano sonatas, he was pushing at the boundaries of Classical forms, but in the last three, Beethoven took the music to a new plane: architecturally, harmonically, sonically, and expressively. In some of these ways, they parallel the late string quartets, that followed. Gone are the landmarks of structure and harmonic transitions that guide a listener’s ear in traditional Classical formats.
These three sonatas seldom appear on stages as a set, except perhaps in the context of complete traversals of the oeuvre. Opus 109 may be programmed a bit more, perhaps owing to a more accessible lyricism in some sections, but it is not easy listening. In the past 20 years Boston audiences have heard several such memorable recitals. Richard Goode played these along with a selection of the Bagatelles in an unforgettable recital at Jordan Hall around 10 years ago. Till Fellner played the last three in one performance, a few years before that. Russell Sherman included these works in many recitals, and I believe I heard him play the last three in one recital.
Levit played the works in order of composition. Before he began with Op. 109, he sat with his head turned slightly away from the audience, in a moment of contemplation. Then his hands hovered over the keys for a few seconds before he began. After the brief first theme, before the arpeggio of the second theme, he dropped his right hand to his side and shook it briefly, then quickly continued. The distracting gesture suggested he had something wrong with the hand. Perhaps it was simply this visual clue, but there was an unease, an unsettled character to the playing, that extended into the development section, but it wasn’t long before he found the right path and took us on our way with total assurance and control.
After the brief first movement, the even shorter second movement, played attacca as Beethoven indicates, zipped by. It is marked prestissimo, but the playing initially seemed a bit rushed and lacking in clarity; by the time he reached the ascending triplet scales, first in the right hand and then the left, transparency returned. The central section, played with the una corda engaged, provided a beautiful contrast to the agitated opening.
This properly balanced contrast would be the case throughout the recital. Levit mastered touch from start to finish and served the composer faithfully and convincingly. These sonatas can give the audience a sense of whiplash, with their repeated episodes of tension and release, but Levit calibrated these transitions convincingly. Part of his success lay in his respect for the composer’s markings. Beethoven left especially specific instructions in these works. Levit showed care in his attention to these profuse indications, but not overly fussily, as he followed each direction: una corda, accent, hairpin crescendo/decrescendo, tempo change, et al.
The variations of the third movement of Op. 109 began with a beautifully voiced theme. On his recording of this sonata, the theme is played rather slowly. The tempo, in recital, seemed perfectly calibrated. The first variation, unfolded with an Italian aria-like expressivity. Levit took advantage of each repeat to provide a different shade to the melody, speeding the turn and drawing out the grace notes ever so slightly. It gave this section a feeling of improvisation ― of spontaneous expression. He projected the broken notes of the second variations with lovely delicacy. The allegro vivace third variation was blazing and perfectly articulated. The fourth variation, perhaps slightly muddied by pedal, still moved us.
The fifth variation is a fugato. Levit dug into the opening subject, as he would with each fugue to come. Here, and in every case to follow, he played with rhythmic certainty, precise articulation, and revealed each voice. In the last variation, Beethoven creates a sonic wonderland, using trills and the extremes of the keyboard. Modern listeners hear this music with a knowledge of Liszt, Debussy, and Ravel; it is hard to imagine how this sounded to the audience in Beethoven’s time. Levit provided the first emotional high point of the evening in this variation. The gradual crescendo over 10 measures, while both hands have trills and melodic lines, precedes denser bass runs, with high treble notes ringing out clearly. And then, after a magical diminuendo, comes the return of the theme. The catharsis of the theme’s return feels like hearing the final Aria in Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
Levit’s demeanor was staid for the most part. He occasionally tapped and kicked his feet with emphasis, especially in the fugues. In the few instances where Beethoven only requires one hand, Levit’s other one conducted. Twice I heard cell phone ring tones from the audience and Levit responded each time with a smirk and slight head wag. His focused on presenting the music without distraction or excessive showmanship.
Levit chose to play Op. 109 and Op. 110 without a break. Though unconventional, there is sound musical logic behind this approach. Both sonatas feature weighty final movements and, in this performance, when played in sequence, the shorter initial movements balanced them. Levit showed extraordinary ability to shape and present Beethoven’s architecture. Op. 109 doesn’t end definitively but rather drifts away. Having it drift into Op. 110 proved satisfying in several ways. The meter is the same (3/4) and the key signature transitions up a third (Op. 109 is obsessed with thirds), which sounded natural. In addition, Op. 110 borrows motives from Op. 109, perhaps most apparent in main theme of the slow movement of Op. 110. The works were written sequentially, and a fundamental soundscape is shared by the two. For example, in both sonatas the dramatic tension was exhilarating when the left and right hands extended to the extremes of the keyboard (Beethoven’s keyboard), treble and bass perhaps denoting the heavens and the earth. Both sonatas have episodes that seem more stream of consciousness, then improvisatory. The penultimate sonata repeatedly, and consequentially, returns to the E Major of the antepenultimate sonata, uniting the two harmonically.
Op. 110 opened gloriously. The floated arpeggios came across leggieramente to a tee. The second movement can pose a bit of a puzzle. Are these folk songs? Is the movement humorous or vulgar? Levit nicely contrasted the two themes not only with the forte/piano alternation but also with an appropriate change in tone. The trio section followed with its off-kilter melody and syncopations.
As with Op. 109, the final movement of Op. 110 is the weightiest. The quiet opening adagio, followed by the tentative recitativo, leads to the famous lament, “Klagender Gesang.” Beethoven needs the German and also the Italian “Arioso dolente” to express the weariness and even misery. Levit carried all of us with him in experiencing this anguish. Then we entered the first Fuga, a moment of healing, once again forceful and confident, only to be pulled back into the second lament, this time “Ermattet, klagend,” lamenting but also weeping. “Perdendo le forze” ― losing strength. This time Levit gave us the melody without consolation. Gasping, stuttering, halting. Then ten G major chords, the tolling of the bells, the pedal sustaining the notes, provided a moment of wonder. These chords led into the second fugue and another catharsis.
After brief applause and a quick bow, Levit sat down for the final sonata. There would be no intermission, let alone an emotional break. In no time he confronted us with the opening resounding chords of the Op. 111 Maestoso. After the introduction, Levit ripped into the savage subject in the bass, forcefully with measured ritenenti allowing us to catch our breath. Once again, Levit took advantage of the repeat to subtly alter the mood, by providing a little more hesitation in each ritenente section. The fury of the development and recapitulation seem to evaporate at the end, with a perfectly calibrated decrescendo and diminuendo. We were left holding our breath.
The Arietta of Op. 111 took on extraordinary qualities. Levit depicted its full majesty, terror, and beauty. Throughout the recital, and particularly in this movement, while I marveled at Levit’s considerable skills, I thought more about Beethoven’s inner struggles and the magnificence of the music. Perhaps the most magical aspect of a fine performance comes in balancing exceptional playing with conveying the music as if directly from the composer. Also, magical was the sound. Though Levit played the high-treble 32nd notes at a whispered pianissimo, they reverberated through the hall; the sound was astonishing. His triple trills also took our breath away. Thus, Levit played and mastered the wonderful acoustics of Jordan Hall. He built the tension steadily through the movement until it became almost unbearable. As he did throughout the recital, Levit eased us into the final transition, this time with gentle chords and a diminuendo to infinity.