I first heard Igor Levit in this sonata triptych back in 2013. It seemed a bold programme choice for a young man, yet Levit’s assertion that this music was “written to be played” makes perfect sense and is a view I’m sure Beethoven would concur with. Then I felt there was room for development and maturity, important attributes for any young artist in the spring of their professional career. Now I hear an artist who has lived with – and in – the music and has crystallised his own view about it.
He crouches over the piano like an animal coiled for attack, yet the sound in those opening bars of the Sonata in E major, Op.109, was so delicate, so lyrically ethereal, it felt as if the music was emerging from some mystical outer firmament, entirely appropriate for these sonatas which find Beethoven in profoundly philosophical mood. It is music which speaks of shared values and what it is to be a sentient, thinking human being; it “puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe” (Paul Lewis). The Prestissimo second movement, urgent and anxious in its tempo and atmosphere emphasised by some ominous bass figures, contained Levit’s trademark “shock and awe” stamping fortes and fortissimos, only to find him and the music back in meditative mood for the theme and variations, which reprised the serenity of the opening, the theme spare and prayer-like with more of that wonderfully delicate shading at the quietest end of the dynamic spectrum that he does so well.
Igor Levit is, along with Daniil Trifonov, the pianist du jour. Lauded for his disc of the Goldberg Variations and Diabelli Variations and Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, and with a slew of critical superlatives for his debut disc of late Beethoven piano sonatas, Levit is a pianist who concerns himself with the most serious edifices of piano literature, while Trifonov tends towards the more romantic virtuoso repertoire.
Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas represent the loftiest Himalayan peaks of the repertoire, both in terms of the arc of their composition (three distinct periods which mirror significant stages in the composer’s life, artistically and emotionally), and the demands these works place on the pianist. The complete Beethoven cycle, a performance of all the piano sonatas, usually over eight concerts, is a Herculean task, not to be undertaken lightly. It fully tests the mettle of any performer, but the perennial appeal of presenting these works in a cycle is a mark of their significance and the special reverence they have accrued.
On Wednesday night, Igor Levit embarked on his Beethoven sonatas cycle at the Wigmore Hall, bringing his intelligent and distinctive approach to these great works.
Here I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.
– Arvo Pärt
Why pick ‘quietude’ rather than simple ‘quietness’? Principally because I think the word has more resonance, more depth: it has a physical component, as well as one of simple silence. It is almost meditative. It is the deep breath (exemplified by Jessye Norman, perhaps) before the opening notes; and – if you’re fortunate – that precious, eternal, ethereal stillness between the final lifting of the fingers from the keys, the release of the sustaining pedal, and the subsequent applause. In both cases – even in a minimal amount of time – there is (can be, or perhaps should be) reflection, absorption, of the music in between.
Sometimes, music itself contains quietude (the most logical culmination of this being John Cage’s 4′ 33″) – although this may not necessarily mean indicated rests or pauses. Before I began to lose my hearing (which, for me, was not the descent into silence that some may expect – as Cage said, “what we hear is mostly noise”: and I experience almost constant tinnitus and occasional “musical hallucinations”), I was obsessed with a short piece, Secret Song No.6, by Peter Maxwell Davies: which, initially, appeared to begin with just a random selection of slow, sustained, intensifying, single tones. Even sitting on the settee, simply staring at that page for long periods of time – in all-consuming stillness, apart from the melody weaving through my mind – trying to understand its implications, its meaning, how one could possibly interpret it – was liable to drive me crazy. It was only a sudden realization (an emergence) that “the silence between the notes is where the magic lies” which led me to some sort of comprehension, and the confidence to return to the piano, to let the music sing for itself. (Technically, it is not a difficult piece. Emotionally, I found it extremely challenging – if only because of the self-examination it provoked. (Which one could argue is the purpose of all art…. Discuss.))
Q is also for Quakers, of course; and, although I am by no means religious (except perhaps in my addiction to creativity), one of their most inspiring qualities (even for me: someone whose tastes evolved in large, echoey gothic buildings resonating with Byrd, Tallis, Howells…) is the silent worship – listening for that “still small voice”. Sitting in true peace – whether alone, or with others – can be a truly overwhelming experience. It is therefore not for everyone.
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
– TS Eliot: Little Gidding (Four Quartets)
Reading this back, I appreciate that some may find hints of mindfulness. To me, though, quietude is almost its antithesis – a momentary letting go; an untethering – although not ‘mindlessness’, per se. It is an absence of intrusion of both internal and external forces. It is a caesura – but one that you may only recognize when immersed in its fragility, its transiency, its elusiveness. What follows must be sound. The rest is silence.
Stephen Ward, Writer in Residence for the Orchestra of the Swan, and blogger at The Bard of Tysoe
Quasi – As if…..
Perhaps the most famous work for piano which utilises the word “Quasi” is Beethoven’s piano sonata Opus 27 No. 2, the “Moonlight”. The first edition of the score is headed Sonata quasi una fantasia, a title the work shares with its companion piece, Opus 27, No. 1.
This is extraordinary music, this “Sonata like a fantasy”, with its first movement of delicately veiled sounds, hushed melodic fragments, those peaceful, certain triplets, the slight hesitancy in the dotted figure in the right hand, the suggestion throughout of improvisation, the pedal markings, senza sordini, indicating that the dampers should be lifted only fractionally away from the strings to allow a slight blurring between the new harmony and the old. A twilight first movement, shimmering, shifting, hinting at the tension between the forward pull of Beethoven’s revolutionary vision, and the solidity and simplicity of the classical ideal, the use of thematic material and texture beautifully demonstrated in the construction of the initial melody. A prophetic theme built on a single note, G-sharp, this the composer’s core idea. A single note, repeated six times, proceeds to A, then returns. A single note, reharmonized on its return, not by the initial C-sharp minor chord, but with luminous E-major. A single note forms a single theme; there is no second subject in the first movement, only that the triplet accompaniment assumes a more melodic role, only that tension rises as new harmonies are initiated. A single note, a single theme, now heard for the first time in the left hand in the coda. A single note, foreshadowed in the opening measures, recollected at the close. A single note, a simple triplet accompaniment, a crescendo and decrescendo first in the right hand, then in the left. The movement ends as quietly as it began…..
Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
I heard my father playing Chopin, Grieg and Schumann at home almost every evening on our small upright piano. Then I tried to imitate him! As I was gifted, he decided to do everything necessary to help me in my development: courses with great teachers, day to day work. He believed in my musical career from the very beginning and that was probably the most important.
Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?
Arthur and Karl-Ulrich Schnabel (with whom I really learned my Beethoven), then Leon Fleisher, who was for me a kind of Mentor, and Christian Ivaldi, who opened my brain to the world of Wagner and Strauss, which radically influenced radically repertoire and the texture of my personal sound.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Playing the 32 Beethoven sonatas in 10 days.
What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?
Playing a concerto with orchestra is the utmost gift a pianist can receive! The piano concerto repertoire is just fabulous and I always feel like it’s an achievement in a solo career. The main problem is to build a relationship with a conductor in a very short rehearsal time. You can feel a kind of frustration sometimes. It is why my relationship with Philippe Jordan is very special, as we have recorded and played so many concertos since 2007! The complete Beethovens on CD and in concert as well as Mozart, Brahms and Saint-Saens. The musical result is amazing because we feel like chamber music partners.
Which recordings are you most proud of?
My Brahms 2nd concerto with LPO and Paavo Berglund, the Beethoven Fifth Concerto with O.P. Radio-France and Philippe Jordan, and my last live recording of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata recently released.
Do you have a favourite concert venue?
This is a tough question. For recital, I would say Wigmore hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall, Köln Philharmonie and Metz Arsenal.
With orchestra, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Salle Pleyel in Paris and Royal Festival Hall in London. Next season I will make my debut in two great European hall: Tonhalle in Zürich and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam!
Who are your favourite musicians?
Among others – Furtwangler, Celibidache, Barenboim, Boulez, Brendel, Pollini and Sokolov. I rediscovered Arrau recently: a genius.
Regarding the conductors I’ve played with I would mention Esa-Pekka Salonen, Daniel Harding, and of course Philippe Jordan. Recently I played with the young conductor Edward Gardner: he was astonishing.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Philippe Jordan conducting Parsifal in Bayreuth.
What is your favourite music to play? To listen to?
Beethoven always to play and listen, I listen more than ever Wagner’s Ring..and all the others.. Then Bruckner 4/5/7/8/9, the complete Mahler
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?
Do not only work solely at your instrument, although it is crucial to spend hours on practising. The main thing is to have an exhaustive knowledge of orchestral and operatic repertoire in order to make the piano like a real orchestra
What are you working on at the moment?
The 5 Beethoven Concertos and the 32 Sonatas, as well as some Wagner paraphrases to celebrate this genius!
I also have some modern music as usual, new studies from Georges Benjamin and a Piano Concerto by Tristan Murail.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time
Any place where I could perform Beethoven’s music.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My wife’s love forever and music everywhere.
What is your most treasured possession?
Patou, my dear cat!!!!!
What is your present state of mind?
Interview date: November 2013
François-Frédéric Guy is regarded as one of the most fascinating pianists of his generation since his career was launched by his debut with Orchestre de Paris and Wolfgang Sawallisch in 2000.
Guy is an artist of immense interpretative authority and superlative technique. He has spent much of his career performing the works of Beethoven, recently completing recordings of the five concertos with Philippe Jordan, and the 32 Sonatas. Guy has performed worldwide with orchestras such as the Berlin Symphony, Hallé, Philharmonia, London Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris and San Francisco Symphony and conductors including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bernard Haitink, Daniel Harding, Neeme Järvi and Michael Tilson Thomas.
Celebrated pianist Julian Jacobson, acclaimed for the vitality, colour and insight he brings to his performances, celebrates the 10th anniversary of his first all-Beethoven charity piano marathon by staging this amazing event once more. The event will run from 9.15am-10pm on 15th October 2013 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, with the aim of raising money for WaterAid and St Martin-in-the-Fields’ The Connection at St Martin’s which gives crisis grants to people in need across the UK. Donate here.
Julian will perform all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas from memory in chronological order with the exception of Op. 106 ‘Hammerklavier’, prefaced by the Sonata in E minor, Op 90, which together will form a special lunchtime concert from 1-2pm within the marathon event itself. Likewise there will be a special ‘Total Beethoven’ concert at 7pm that evening which will conclude the day’s marathon. During this outstanding feat of endurance – undertaken by only two other pianists – he plans to take just 2 longer breaks of 30 minutes each on the day and a few shorter breaks of just 5 minutes each. The event will be live-streamed with a button for people to donate during the webcast.
This will be a very special event indeed. Aside from the sheer Herculean task of learning, absorbing and reproducing all those notes, and sustaining a performance for over twelve hours, to hear Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas in (almost) chronological order offers a far-reaching overview of Beethoven’s musical style, the development of the piano sonata as a genre in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, and a glimpse into the inner workings of Beethoven’s compositional life and personality.
I asked Julian about the special challenges of preparing for such a musical marathon
CEP: How do you prepare, mentally and physically, for such a performance? What are the particular challenges of presenting all 32 Sonatas in one day?
JJ: Just attempt not to drown. An insane project. Go through all the sonatas in decreasing circles (revision over two months, then again over one month, two weeks, one week, three days…..). Try and keep fit, or get a bit fitter.
Admission to the event during the day is free, with a donation. Book tickets for the evening concert ‘Total Beethoven’ (7pm) via the Box Office: 020 7766 1100 or online from the St Martin-in-the-Fields website.
Igor Levit’s star is rising fast: a BBC New Generation Artist, an exclusive recording deal with Sony Classics, and a debut CD of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas have already brought this 26-year-old pianist attention and acclaim, and on Tuesday evening he opened the 2013/14 International Piano Series at London’s Southbank Centre with a performance of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas to a full house.
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