In the current issue of the magazine, I have a Salzburg chronicle, though, like other Americans, I was not able to go to the Salzburg Festival this summer. The festival kindly provided some livestreams. Many of them. In this chronicle is a relatively short note on Igor Levit, the Russian-German pianist (born in 1987). I write,
In this Beethoven year of 2020, he was asked to play all thirty-two sonatas at the Salzburg Festival.
The year 2020 marks the two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. (Word aficionados will like to know that such an anniversary is known as the “semiquincentennial.”)
Anyway, my chronicle continues,
That is an extraordinary honor for a pianist—yet it was Salzburg, really, that was honored. Levit played the thirty-two in a series of eight recitals. There were encores, including at least one Joplin rag. My plan was to write in detail about Levit’s playing of one sonata, only: the one in D major, Op. 28, known as “Pastoral.” I have copious notes in front of me, covering the four movements. But I would like to touch on other performances at the festival, before closing out this chronicle. So, about Levit, I’ll make a simple statement.
I will quote that statement in a moment. But, here on the site, shall I discuss the “Pastoral,” thereby offering a picture of Levit in Beethoven?
This is a most unusual sonata, the “Pastoral”—one of the most unusual of the composer’s thirty-two. It takes a Classical sensibility, a Romantic sensibility, a wide palette of colors, and more. There is a lot of emotion—various emotions—packed into this modest-seeming sonata.
In the first movement, Igor Levit was rich and songful. Inner voices were present, but not too blatant. The music was shrewdly pedaled (which is important here.) I jotted a note to myself: “So Schubertian, this first movement—but that’s funny.”
Yes. Beethoven wrote this piece when Franz Schubert was four years old. Can we say that Schubert is “Beethoven-like”?
Although Levit was lyrical and poetic, he included plenty of the rigor that we associate with Beethoven. This music is not Chopin. Then again, Chopin should not be Chopin, if you know what I mean. You do a disservice to him if you make him too soupy.
In Beethoven’s first movement, Levit cooked up a real storm—but it was a controlled storm, a Classical storm. And the “comedown” from the storm—its subsiding—was superbly calibrated. There were stormy elements even as the storm died: after-flashes.
The playing, in this movement as throughout the sonata, was thoughtful without being overthought. Always, Levit plays as if every measure counted. He is never on autopilot or cruise control. Yet he knows that some things ought to be nonchalant, or matter-of-fact. He ended the first movement in this fashion. I thought of something that James Levine has been known to tell orchestras, and singers: “Don’t make a federal case out of it.”
Beethoven’s slow movement, Andante, has a crunchy, staccato accompaniment in the left hand; the right hand intones above it. This is reminiscent of the slow movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto, I believe—and both movements are in D minor. You can bet Beethoven was conscious of this.
In his tempo, Levit was very strict. And there was an urgency about his playing. In these hands, the music was simple and dramatic, both. Levit showed discipline and imagination, in equal portions.
Next comes the Scherzo, which is subtle, sweet, impish, and demonic. All of those things in one humble (or humble-seeming) scherzo? Yes. Beethoven’s personality—a multifaceted personality—is all over it. And Levit brought it out, strikingly.
The Rondo is another “Schubertian” movement. It is an unusually relaxed rondo. It is hard to find the right tempo—the tempo giusto—but Levit did. His playing was smooth, nuanced, and rippling. But he also allowed it some Beethoven crunch, or bite. The coda was fast as hell. This made me glad, because the coda is seldom fast or merry enough for me. I think Beethoven would have grinned and grinned, as he must have when he wrote it, and played it.
Levit committed some technical smudges—but this was not a studio recording, thank heaven.
When I first heard Levit play, it was in Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, chiefly. I wondered, how can music so familiar be made so fresh? So new? I did the same wondering when listening to Op. 28, i.e., the “Pastoral” Sonata.
In my chronicle, in the current issue of the magazine, I make this statement:
I’m not much of a ranker: This one’s best, this one’s second-best. Music is not tennis. We don’t rank them. A range of musicians have a great deal to give, and we value them all. But I think of a line that Dave Wasserman uses. He is an American political journalist who specializes in House races. On an election night, when he is ready to call a race, he says, “I’ve seen enough.” And then he says that Smith or Jones or whoever has won.
In that spirit, let me say, I’ve heard enough: Igor Levit is the greatest Beethoven pianist I have ever heard, on recording or in the flesh. No disrespect to Backhaus, Brendel, or anyone else. If Beethoven could hear what Levit is doing, I think he’d say, eyes wide, “Yes, that is what I have in mind.”