Musikfest 2: Storm and Serenity
Between thoughtful recordings and engaging live performances, Igor Levit has spent the better part of the past decade consolidating his reputation as one of the most intelligent interpreters of the solo-piano repertoire. During the darkest days of the COVID pandemic’s first wave, however, he also became one of the great folk-heroes of the lockdown thanks to a series of mini-recitals broadcast via his Twitter account. Although the gradual easing of restrictions meant that Mr Levit was able to realise his plan of taking the complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas on tour in this disrupted year of Beethoven celebrations, the memory of those lockdown performances gave his return to the concert stage in Berlin an extra sense of occasion.
Mr Levit’s sonata cycle had been announced as one of the cornerstones of a Beethoven-themed Musikfest long before the pandemic and, in the aftermath of a half-year closure for all of Berlin’s concert venues and the introduction of new social distancing measures, it was one of the few parts of the original programme that survived intact. The first concert in Mr Levit’s cycle doubled not only as the opening of this year’s Musikfest, but also one of the first publicly-attended concerts at the Philharmonie since the lockdown; this past weekend his cycle reached its conclusion with two concerts devoted to the final six sonatas for solo piano.
When played in the order of composition, the six pieces fall naturally into two perfect concert programmes – the first building slowly to the climactic fugue of the ‘Hammerklavier’ and the second arriving at the expression of sublime tranquillity that brings op. 111 to its conclusion – and from the very beginning Mr. Levit displayed a keen awareness of the threads that hold these disparate works together. His performance of the E minor sonata op. 90 seemed to anticipate the opposition of storm and serenity that forms the central drama of op. 111 and that appears, to a greater or lesser extent, in most of the others. The first movement was marked by extreme contrasts and infused with unusually high levels of agitation. After a slow and deeply pensive introduction, the sudden, violent return of the opening chords was especially shocking; even the quieter passages seemed to vacillate between mournful and restive. The second movement, however, banished all such anxieties in favour of a fluid lyricism, replacing the stark mood-swings with measured dynamic gradations. Yet even the most agreeable playing never came across as lightweight; there was an assertive quality in Mr Levit’s attack that imparted appropriate strength to even the most amiable passages.
If the A major sonata op. 101 didn’t cohere quite as neatly, it was nonetheless full of brilliant moments and the occasional surprising revelation. Where the opening of op. 90 had been notable for its volatility, the first movement of op. 101 offered broadly-scaled pendulum swings of temperament in which sunny passages gave way almost imperceptibly to intimations of darkness. Nor did Mr Levit allow the sonata’s penchant for introspection to go unnoticed in the second movement, which featured flashes of uncertainty amidst an otherwise decisive martial vitality. The gloomy third movement was a retreat inward, a curiously introverted interlude of soul-searching from which occasional melodic passages emerged with frozen clarity; there was, indeed, such concentration in the playing that the transition to the fourth movement seemed unusually abrupt. Once it found its momentum, however, it offered a preview of what was to come in the following sonata. Mr Levit approached the movement’s contrapuntal section with dazzling speed, and while there were one or two moments when absolute clarity was compromised by the onslaught of notes, when it all held together it was deeply impressive.
One of the early champions of the B flat major sonata op. 106 was Franz Liszt, whose romantic sensibility may have been attracted to the expressive third movement, but who must also have seen in the outer movements an ideal showcase for his virtuosity. Although the ‘Hammerklavier’ has since become an essential staple for most pianists, there was something faintly Lisztian in the combination of daredevil speed and complete assurance that Mr Levit brought to the opening movement. Although the introspective thread that ran through the earlier sonatas had not been excised entirely – there was a wonderfully ominous pause after the repeat – the first movement succeeded largely through its virtuoso execution; which is not to say that Mr Levit used his fiery pace as an excuse to blur notes or take liberties with dynamic markings. The rise and fall of the movement was no less scrupulously crafted for being dispatched so quickly. The brief scherzo, played with similar levels of excitement, sounded measured in comparison.
In the third movement, perhaps the most fascinating section of the concert, Mr Levit generated considerable tension from the conflicting demands of sustained melancholy and lyrical expression. There was an underlying restlessness that prevented the movement from lapsing into a meditative state, and which offered subtle opposition to the rapturous melodic passages that attempted to emerge every so often. When the introduction of the fourth movement arrived, it seemed a direct continuation of the previous movement’s spiritual unrest, and the introductory micro-episodes preceding the fugue seemed oddly adrift. Yet the opening section of the fugue was played so exactingly that the overlapping voices emerged with almost equal clarity despite the furious pace. Although the notes remained distinct, there were a few moments when the sheer velocity left little time to savour the formal structure, yet Mr Levit’s relentless momentum and technical mastery brought the concert to a thrilling conclusion. The audience responded with such enthusiasm that, after a few bows, Mr Levit returned to the piano to play an encore – the song ‘Danny Boy’ in the arrangement of Bill Evans – as beautiful as it was unexpected.
The second concert: September, 20
If the Saturday concert was notable for its restlessness, the Sunday concert – featuring the final three sonatas, opp. 109–111 – was marked by a greater equanimity. The heightened contrasts that characterised op. 90 were still present in the opening two movements of op. 109, which set up passages of exquisite delicacy but subjected them to sudden intrusions; if the first movement hinted at conflicts beneath a relatively placid surface, the fiercely paced second – which followed almost without pause – threatened to upend the precarious balance entirely. Yet there was little turmoil to be found in the final movement: the theme was presented with a profound inner calm and even the increasingly lively variations unfolded with sustained poise. The latter variations, especially, had an impressive sonic breadth constructed of wonderfully observed detail and gradual dynamic swells, and when the theme returned in its original form it seemed all the more resplendent for having survived so many transformations.
The prevailing tranquillity of the op. 109 variations extended into the opening movement of op. 110, which was fleet but not rushed and played with a delicate touch; the probing restlessness of the day before had given way to a more consistently flowing momentum. As in the previous sonata, the second movement followed almost directly from the first, but Mr Levit played it less for contrast than continuity. The third movement was another of the evening’s great moments, opening with a slow but decisively phrased arioso that avoided melancholy in favour of quiet resolution, while the subsequent fugue, played at a more moderate tempo than the conclusion of the ‘Hammerklavier’ the previous day, accentuated the lyrical qualities that lay beneath Beethoven’s deliberate counterpoint. When the arioso theme returned it sounded considerably more impassioned, although still firmly resolved, and in the concluding fugal section Mr Levit never allowed the dovetailing note runs to obscure the rhythmic superstructure into which they had been placed.
While Mr Levit had not shied away from bold gestures the day before, the introductory section of op. 111 sounded less overtly thunderous than one might have expected. But soon the tightly coiled bass trill that introduces the Allegro section set a torrent in motion, and the remainder of the movement played out as if powered by the kinetic force unleashed in that single moment. Yet there was nothing conspicuously showy in Mr Levit’s playing: if the pace of the Hammerklavier’s first movement had been designed to dazzle, the playing here was so intensely focussed that its whirlwind speed seemed only a product of necessity. Even the brief moments of respite felt unstable, as though there was so much energy flowing through the movement that it was only a matter of time before it continued on its unstoppable course.
The opening of the second movement was so concentrated that one was left with the impression of Mr Levit devoting all his strength to keeping the fury of the first movement at bay. Yet as the subsequent variations grew less deliberate and more spontaneous there was a sense of something new emerging from the spent energy of what had come before. It took time for the movement to find its own inner momentum, but once it did it moved forward with exceptional grace. When the opening theme returned near the very end, now underpinned by magnificently controlled trills, it seemed to pulsate with a radiance more organic and inexhaustible than anything we had heard in either of the concerts.
Since the opening of Musikfest, the Philharmonie has made minor adjustments to their hygiene protocol: instead of informing audience members that they could remove their masks during the performance it was now optional but with a strong recommendation to keep them on. It was refreshing to see that many heeded the advice. Mr Levit’s internet recitals may have helped to keep us sane during the height of the lockdown, but his music – and all music – thrives in the concert hall. As the potential for a second lockdown looms ever larger, it is important for us to do whatever we can – and if that means wearing a mask for the duration of a concert, then so be it – to ensure that we can continue to experience music in the best, most immediate way possible.