Review: Igor Levit plays Beethoven, Bartók and Brahms4:07, 20th February 2020
Review by Jacob Bird
Igor Levit and Markus Becker offered a tightly wrought programme of Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók in a dazzling display of counterpoint and invention at London’s Barbican.
The concert opened with a four-hand transcription of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (the maligned original finale to the String Quartet in B-flat major Op 130). Arranged by Beethoven himself, this four-hand version shines new light on a work which Stravinsky described as ‘an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever’.
The Grosse Fuge illustrates Beethoven’s late style at its most pronounced, the characteristics of which are heightened in this arrangement. By replacing the rich depth of the string quartet with the steely percussiveness of the piano it throws the music’s contrapuntal mechanisms into relief, corroborating Adorno’s view that late Beethoven foregrounds convention for convention’s sake. Levit and Becker tore into its virtuosic demands with aplomb. The music’s difficulty became an affective quality of the performance, its strain on the pianists making for a thrilling experience. Unfortunate that some too-noticeable foot tapping was required to keep the beast in check.
Next up was Brahms’ two-piano arrangement of his Variations on a Theme of Haydn. Here, Levit and Becker really came into their own, giving an incredibly lush rendition of the main theme (taken from Haydn’s ‘Chorale St Antoni’, which Brahms found in a wind ensemble, though its provenance is dubious) with wonderfully matched touch. Comprising eight variations and a concluding finale, highlights were undoubtedly the presto fifth variation, the vivace sixth and the whirlwind finale. In itself a theme and variations on a ground bass, the finale offers a rare moment of excess for Brahms, handled masterfully here by Levit and Becker.
Yet the real jewel of this concert was Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, with Levit and Becker joined by Klaus Reda and Andreas Boettger. From the off, Levit et al set the scene for a virtuosic undertaking of this phenomenal work. The first movement, which opens with a chromatic motif surprisingly similar to the theme of the Grosse Fuge, was truly gripping (not least due to some tense issues caused by Levit’s score closing on itself). The slow movement was beautifully executed and leapt into the third movement Allegro with infectious energy. The duo revelled in the playfulness of this spiky dance, elegantly transitioning to the touching duet for snare drum and cymbal which closes the work. This modernist masterpiece married the sheer motoric energy of the Beethoven with the lush textures of the Brahms, crowning a sensational evening.