Richard Whitehouse on another enterprising program from the Wigmore Hall
Wigmore Hall, London Thursday 5 November
Muffat: Passacaglia in G minor (pub 1690)
Shostakovich: Piano Sonata no.2 in B minor (1943)
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations (1819-23)
Igor Levit (piano)
Make no mistake, Igor Levit is among the most questing and (executively speaking) creative of younger pianists and it was an astute move by Wigmore Hall to make him a featured artist this coming season – Igor Levit Perspectives taking in a range of solo and chamber projects.
Levit’s latest recording comprises no less than three variation cycles by Bach, Beethoven and Rzewski (about which you can learn more by watching the video below). Avoiding any temptation to programme them as a single ‘marathon’ recital, tonight’s recital placed the Beethoven within a stimulating context. This opened with the Passacaglia from Georg Muffat’s Apparatus musico-organisticus, whose five variations on a deceptively functional theme were a blueprint for increasingly elaborate such sequences over the next two centuries. Levit’s account did not want for expressive depth or technical finesse.
A conceptual link between this piece and the finale of Shostakovich’s Piano Sonata no.2 was not hard to discern. Despite advocacy from such pianists as Emil Gilels, this latter work remains neglected compared to the composer’s orchestral and chamber music; its essentially introspective manner evident in an initial Allegretto whose respectively furtive and sardonic themes were delineated with simmering volatility. Nor was the central Largo lacking in that anguished restraint which Shostakovich was to mine extensively in his later string quartets; the (11) variations of the final Moderato unfolding with a cumulative intensity capped by the penultimate one in which Levit’s daringly slow tempo was justified by the desolation thereby conveyed, its successor then bringing this work full-circle to a decisive yet fatalistic degree.
After the interval, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and a performance that underlined the breathtaking imagination of a piece whose overall cohesion is afforded precisely through its sheer unpredictability. Not that Levit shied away from such disjunctiveness – witness the frequent and often lengthy pauses between groups of variations (which, interestingly enough, were by no means the customary or expected ones) – yet there was rarely, if ever, any feeling that this follow-through was governed other than by deep-seated formal logic and expressive conviction. Qualities equally true of the 10 additional variations that Beethoven inserted late in the work’s gestation, and which between them further point up the audacity of the overall concept as one in which Diabelli’s jejune theme is respected for all its intensive dismantling.
The biggest change came (as most often) with the modulation into C minor for variations 29-31, and a sequence that occupies a similar emotional domain to that of the ‘Arietta’ from the final piano sonata – though here the outcome is not transfiguration but the careering velocity of a double fugue in E flat; its progress finely articulated by Levit, who was nonetheless at pains to ensure its apex came with that credential interlude into the final variation – a minuet whose lucid poise brings with it a measure of calm then, at the close, bestows a benediction.
A pity the audience betrayed frequent signs of restlessness as the performance unfolded, but. Levit made no concessions to his listeners; any more than does Beethoven to his exponents – between them confirming a level of artistic integrity that should never be taken for granted.