Igor Levit plays the Adagio from Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata

As part of the celebrations for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Igor Levit has recorded the 32 piano sonatas, a highly acclaimed set released on Sony Classical late last year.

They are sure to form an integral part of our listening as Arcana navigates Beethoven’s complete output, but for now you can enjoy the timeless Adagio from the Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor, known as the Pathétique, which Sony have released today:

Julia Fischer & Igor Levit – Beethoven at Wigmore Hall


Richard Whitehouse on a complete cycle of Beethoven’s Sonatas for piano and violin given at the Wigmore Hall over three nights, from Monday 4 – Wednesday 6 July

Monday 4th – Sonatas Op.12 nos.1-3 (1797-8); A minor, Op.24 (1800)

Tuesday 5th – Sonatas in F, Op. 25, ‘Spring’ (1800-1); Op.30 nos.1-3 (1801-2)

Wednesday 6th – Sonatas in A, Op. 47, ‘Kreutzer’ (1802-3); in G, Op. 96 (1812)

Julia Fischer (violin), Igor Levit (piano)

Unlike his symphonies, string quartets or piano sonatas, Beethoven’s violin sonatas cannot be taken as representative of his output as a whole. The first nine were written in barely six years up to the threshold of the composer’s second period, whose ending is duly marked by his final such work. The cycle nevertheless makes for an ideal mini-series as is frequently encountered, with the present one – spread plausibly yet unequally over three recitals – from Julian Fischer and Igor Levit having already been heard in Munich, Berlin, Zurich and Paris.

A violinist who has few equals for consistency of line, with a pianist of abundant insight over a broad repertoire, promised much for this traversal and so it proved – whether in the robust expressive contrasts of the Op. 12 trilogy, the more pronounced differences between those of Opp. 24 and 25, the almost perfect balance that prevails between the widely varied threesome of Op. 30, then the virtuosity and high-flown rhetoric of Op. 47; with the formal subtlety and emotional restraint of Op. 96 at far more of a remove than its temporal distance might suggest.

One of the chief attractions of such a cycle is hearing pieces that rarely surface independently in recital. Hence the Sonata in A which forms an unobtrusive centrepiece to the Op. 12 set, its elegant intermezzo-like Andante preceded by an Allegro whose waltz-like insouciance amply complemented the drily humorous finale. Arguably a little too knowing here, Fischer sounded more at ease with the Sonata in D – not least its questing initial Allegro and tonally deceptive finale, though the central variations felt a little over-calculated for their poise fully to register.

The Sonata in E flat brought out the best in this partnership, Levit pointing up the emotional breadth of the opening Allegro as surely as Fischer maintained the unbroken melodic span of its Adagio, before the duo laid on the rhetoric of the combative finale. Hardly less impressive was the Sonata in A minor – its coursing initial Presto unfolded with propulsive energy, then its successor duly emerging as a quixotic amalgam of slow movement and scherzo such as is offset by a finale whose restless modulations anticipate Schumann, Brahms and even Reger.

Opening the second recital, the ‘Spring’ Sonata presented less of an expressive contrast than expected – not least as Fischer downplayed the Schubertian elegance of its initial Allegro as surely as the Mendelssohnian sentiment of its Adagio. The brief Scherzo was wittiness itself, even if the finale’s easefulness felt a little matter of fact. Not so the Sonata in A that launches the Op. 30 set, the airy lyricism of its Allegro a deft foil to the searching Adagio that may be Beethoven’s most elusive such movement, with the final variations having minx-like charm.

The Sonata in C minor inevitably dominated this sequence, its initial Allegro of an expressive vehemence comparable to its formal ingenuity then the Adagio with a simmering tension that burst forth in the stark coda. Levit made play with the Scherzo’s fractious piano part, while it was Fischer who took the lead in a final Allegro of an energy purposefully held in check until its coruscating coda. Not that the Sonata in G was unduly anti-climactic: the knowingness of its minuet manqué a telling foil to those respectively tensile and deadpan Allegro’s either side.

The final recital comprised the last two sonatas in a short measure yet ideally complementary programme. Too often an exercise in rhetorical overkill, the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata was notable for an unusually close-knit integration of the first movement’s Presto with its Adagio introduction – opening-out without dissipating its driving impetus, then the Andante’s eloquent variations building to a searching coda. The final Presto capped the whole with fine style, its underlying tarantella replete with a teasing archness and sufficient pathos to make it a fitting conclusion.

Nine years on and the Sonata in G closes Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ second period with a poise at times verging on the ethereal. Fischer and Levit amply evoked such a quality in the unhurried opening Allegro, its trills and arpeggios as whimsical as they were profound, then the Adagio plumbed depths as were deftly offset on seguing into the Scherzo with its terse rhythmic gait and winsome trio. If the final Allegro felt at all uneventful, the inwardness and decisiveness of its closing two variations were tellingly conveyed as the work (and the cycle) neared its end.

And that was it – with, as in the previous two recitals, no room for encores or for Beethoven’s relatively minor sundry pieces for violin and piano. No matter, this was an impressive as well as an absorbing traversal – not least for its underlining those collaborative strengths as makes the Fischer/Levit duo a potent one. Hopefully it will be taking this music into the studio at the earliest opportunity, so leaving a permanent record of three evenings as amply reinforced the strengths of what remains the most significant contribution to its genre over two centuries on.

You can read Arcana’s interview with Tasmin Little about the Beethoven sonatas here

Tomasz Lis at Leighton House – Tchaikovsky and Chopin

Tomasz Lis

Richard Whitehouse on an intriguing recital from the Music at Unique Venues series
Leighton House, London Tuesday 10 November

Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Op. 37b (1875-6)

Chopin: Preludes, Op. 24 – selection (1835-9)

Tomasz Lis (piano)

This evening’s recital formed part of the series Music at Unique Venues, aiming to combine the appeal of music and art by holding recitals at places not normally associated with live performance or, moreover, that are not often open to the general public. Although Leighton House has been accessible over much of the past century, not least for live music-making, a lengthy period of renovation had effectively taken it out of circulation; making performances such as that given tonight by the Polish pianist Tomasz Lis a much-needed act of redress.

Each half began with Lis placing the music in the context of fine-art from the same period. Thus he prefaced his account of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons with consideration of those paintings A Rye Field and Winter by Ivan Shishkin (1832-98), whose deftly achieved realism found its complement in the understated and folk-inflected ethos of Tchaikovsky’s cycle; played with a winning combination of grace and eloquence by Lis, who pointed out it might have been titled ‘The Months’ were it not for the commercial acumen of its publisher.

The second half duly opened with Lis considering the paintings Souvenir de Mortefontaine by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) and Fire at Sea by JMW. Turner (1775-1851); their powerful synthesis of feeling with depiction finding direct equivalent in the 24 Preludes of Chopin, 16 of which (Nos. 1-11 and 13-17) were heard here. Two-thirds of such a closely integrated cycle might have been in error, but Lis ensured this selection unfolded with a cohesion such that the A flat prelude rounded-off the sequence with requisite poise.

Add to this visual and musical feast the opportunity to enjoy the surroundings of the house made famous by Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-96) out of opening hours, and the result was an evening as instructive as it was pleasurable. Tomasz Lis has recently released his debut album – featuring impromptus by Schubert, Chopin and Fauré – via Rondeau Productions (Klanglogo KL1511), which is well recommended. The Music at Unique Venues continues next February at Armourers Hall in the City of London and then in May at the Saville Club.

You can read more about the Music at Unique Venues series here

Meanwhile the website of Tomasz Lis is here

Igor Levit at the Wigmore Hall

Igor Levit

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.

Four seasons in one hour

igor-levitAll the seasons in one concert – Igor Levit performs Tchaikovsky’s cycle of twelve months for piano

Igor Levit (piano) – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 26 January 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):


on the iPlayer until 28 February

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

What’s the music?

Tchaikovsky – Méditation (1893) (5 minutes)
Tchaikovsky – The Seasons (1876) (41 minutes)

What about the music?

It might seem like a recent development where music magazines carried CDs on the front, but the idea of the cover mount was given to Tchaikovsky all the way back in 1875 by Nouvellist, a St Petersburg magazine. They commissioned from the composer one piece per month in manuscript form, and these were often published with a short piece of text from the editor Nikolai Bernard.

Although they are separate pieces they work really well as a whole and are perfect easy listening. Closer inspection reveals a wealth of melodic content and some keen characterisation too – especially in the characteristic October gloom with which Autumn begins, dispelling the three bright and incident packed months of summer. Bookending the collection are January in front of the fire, and December – by which time the Christmas hearth is beckoning once again.

The brief Méditation is rather moving, an epitaph to the head of the Conservatoire in Moscow. Tchaikovsky’s response has a noble beauty.

Performance verdict

Igor Levit is ideal for The Seasons, painting each picture with beautiful detail and sensitivity. Sometimes the months run into each other, which is effective when considering the year as a whole – that’s what time does, after all!

What should I listen out for?

1:41 – the soft, contemplative beginning to the Méditation

The Seasons

8:37 – Tchaikovsky paints the comforting warmth of the fireside in January through music that is easy to listen to – though under the surface there are a few worrisome figures
15:48 – The song of the lark in March, possibly the first clue this cycle offers that it is the work of a Russian composer
24:33 – June is the best-loved month of The Seasons, and this reflective Barcarolle is cast in a similar mood to March – until the sun literally comes out in the middle (26:09),as the music changes from minor key to major key
37:25 – After the bracing horn calls of September, the shadows lengthen noticeably for October, the longest of the twelve pieces by far, stretching out like tendrils into the gathering dusk. Tchaikovsky’s music here is appreciably darker in colour, sitting lower in the piano’s register.
42:44 – November puts a brave face on October’s troubles in music that bears more than a little resemblance to Schumann. There is however a very Russian Troika at its heart (from 43:40 and heard in full at 44:20)


51:22 – Another short Tchaikovsky piano piece, the Chanson triste – a model of simplicity, beautifully played.

Want to hear more?

Tchaikovsky is generally known for his loud orchestral music – 1812 Overture and the like – so why not try something else along the more gentle line practised here? His Symphony no.1, subtitled Winter Daydreams, is well worth trying next.