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Nuanced and sensitive, but not always exciting
on 11 August 2014
After all the rave reviews everywhere I listened to this album expecting to be blown away. Unfortunately it didn't quite happen, although Igor Levit's playing is always beautiful, with individual ideas. First, the good: The Sonata No. 28 is an unqualified success, one of the best versions in the catalogue. Levit really makes the first and third movements sing, and the march and the finale are played with refreshing clarity, poise and elegance.
Unfortunately, poise and elegance are Levit's downfalls in some cases. I just wished he let himself go a bit more, to strive for the elemental in late Beethoven. For example, he offers a sleek, elegant, and somewhat lightweight and anti-climactic fugue in the mighty 'Hammerklavier'. I was particularly disappointed by that because I felt that Levit really nailed the gigantic slow movement, achieving a rare fusion of profundity and depth on the one hand and songful simplicity on the other.
The same qualities are Levit's drawbacks in No. 30 - after a sensitively voiced opening movement, he doesn't really raise the voltage for the second movement Prestissimo. The ingredients are there: great articulation and sense of rhythm, but you get the feeling that Levit holds back and doesn't unleash the full drama the music is capable of. This is also the case in the last movement variations, whose climax doesn't soar to the heavens as it does with, say Stephen Kovacevich (on Philips) or Claudio Arrau. No. 31 fares better, though again I prefer a more confrontational interpretation of the final fugue.
As for No. 32, here Levit displays the same qualities in the Arietta as he did in the 'Hammerklavier' Adagio: it's sensitively sung and the variations have a wonderful sense of continuity all the way to the climactic trills, which in this case do not disappoint. Again though, it's not a five-star performance (for me) all the way through, since the Introduction to the first movement is not as impressive as it could be. Other pianists play it in a thundering, earth-shattering way, Levit does not.
Other people may prefer this kind of interpretation, but I just wished he went for the jugular more often because it would have made for one of the best late Beethoven recordings in the business. As it is, I found lots of things to enjoy but was left wanting more. I hope Levit returns to these works at some point in his career because I'd be fascinated to hear how he revisits them.