Tuesday 14 January 2014

Igor Levit displays superb musicianship in performances of Beethoven’s five last piano sonatas on his debut release for Sony Classical

There is no shortage of fine young pianists around today but just occasionally a new name springs up that stands out for exceptional musicianship as well as superb technique.

One such pianist is Igor Levit www.igorlevit.com born in 1987 in Nizhni Novgorod, Russia. He moved, with his family, at the age of eight years to Germany where he studied at the Academy of Music, Drama and Media in Hanover, graduating with the highest score in the history of the Institute. His teachers included Karl-Heinz Kammerling, Matti Raekallio, Bernd Goetzke, Lajos Rovatkay and Hans Leygraf.

As the youngest participant Igor Levit won four awards at the 2005 International Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv including Silver Medal. Last year he won the first Price of the International Piano Academy Competition Hamamtsu in Japan.

For his debut album for Sony Classical www.sonymasterworks.com Levit has taken what many people might consider a courageous decision for a young pianist, to record all of Beethoven’s five late piano sonatas.

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Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op.101 (1816) brings a restrained and introspective Allegretto ma non troppo with playing of real depth. In the Vivace alla Marci, Levit gives refined playing, rhythmically secure, with lovely phrasing and an ability to realise the structure of the music so well. He allows the music to sparkle and unfold with such a feeling of discovery. This is exquisite playing. With the Adagio ma non troppo, con affetto, Levit seems to hold a conversation with the listener such is the intensity of his playing. The Allegro receives a thrilling performance, so well controlled and laid out, yet so full of spontaneity and flair, phenomenally played as the movement develops.

Levit provides a formidable opening to the Allegro of the Sonata No.29 in B flat major, op.106 (1817/18) ‘Hammerklavier’ with its repeated eight note marcato figure before leading the listener through all the increasing tensions of this wonderful movement. He never loses sight of the ultimate direction through all the twists and turns. The brief Scherzo. Assai vivace is allowed to reveal so much before we are led into the Adagio Sostenuto. Appassionato e con molto sentimento, one of Beethoven’s longest and most deeply felt slow movements. Despite the slowness of the tempo, Levit brings some amazing tension to the music. Occasionally there is some wonderfully limpid playing, with such fine touch. Within this restrained movement he brings out so many subtle dynamics and sonorities. This is immensely impressive playing. Levit gently picks out the opening largo and allegro introduction of the final Largo – Allegro risoluto before he develops the music into the rollicking fugal finale with some stunning playing, full of tremendous phrasing and dynamics in this fast moving finale.

The Vivace ma non troppo of the Sonata No.30 in E major, Op.109 (1820) is beautifully fluent, finely paced, allowing all the contrasts in tempo and dynamics to be heard before the Prestissimo, an even faster Scherzo movement exceptionally well nuanced and, again allowing all the detail to emerge. Levit’s technique is superb. The theme in the final movement, Andante molto cantabile ed expressive – Variationen I – VI, is marked Gesangvoll mit innigster Empfindung or Songlike, with the greatest inwardness of feeling and again brings out playing of the finest order, with Levit drawing out every little nuance, beautifully coloured, naturally flowing into each little variation that provides for much scintillating playing as Levit leads us through each of the various tempi, Molto expressivo, Leggiermente, Allegro vivace, Etwas langsamer als das Thema and Allegro, ma non troppo before the return of the opening tempo.

The Moderato cantabile molto expressivo of Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op.110 (1821) brings some lovely rounded playing in the opening, with Levit showing great subtlety in drawing out so much from each phrase. How he leads up to the coda is quite magical. In the scherzo, Allegro molto, it is remarkable how Levit keeps such a fine flowing tempo to contrast against the fiery outbursts, all the while maintaining a lovely control of dynamics. As Levit leads straight into the Adagio of the Adagio ma non troppo – Fuga. Allegro ma non troppo finale, he builds a natural flow up to the magnificent recitative, a Klagender Gsang or Song of Lament, just hinting at the theme to follow, drawing so much tension. When the Fuga quietly arrives it is spellbinding, such richness in the left hand and a formidable coda.

The Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111 (1821/22) receives a striking opening Maestoso, so distinctively played by Levit, calm and controlled. When the Allegro con brio ed appassionato arrives, Levit is terrific in the way he handles the varying dynamics, ratcheting up the tension and power. Here is playing of supreme power, finesse, structural understanding, depth and musicianship.  The Arietta. Adagio molto semplice e cantabile brings such depth of understanding from this pianist. Acting as a slow finale this is again one of Beethoven’s long extended slow movements, a theme, quite direct in nature (something fully realised here) and four variations, before a modulation from C major to E flat major and the return of the theme that leads to the coda. Levit has everything, delicacy of touch, a fine sense of overall structure, full, rich, powerful tone, sensitivity, depth and, above all, superb musicianship.

So are there any downsides to these performances? Not really. Just occasionally I was a little worried about the slow tempi in the quieter, more thoughtful passages but then, as the music developed, it seemed so right. These performances are an outstanding achievement.

The recording, full, detailed with rounded piano tone only adds to the attraction of this set. Unusually, these discs are individually indexed within each track where necessary to denote sections. Therefore, if your player has this facility you will be able to follow each variation. The booklet contains an interesting essay on Beethoven’s late sonatas by Martin Geck.


  1. I won't mince words here. This is the greatest Beethoven piano playing I've ever heard, including from such giants as Schnabel and Paul Lewis. This young man is no mere virtuoso, but a true musician, and I hope that he records the rest of Beethoven's piano works.
    Ralph John Steinberg

  2. You will be pleased to know that I will soon be reviewing Levit's Bach Partitas on Sony