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Classical Album of the Week: Igor Levit Plays Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas

August 3, 2020. This is is Beethoven’s 250th anniversary birth year. It’s also the year the coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of countless live concert tributes to Beethoven across the globe. This calamitous turn of events makes the release of important Beethoven recordings especially welcome. For our Classical Album of the Week, we’ve chosen German pianist Igor Levit’s latest offering from Sony Classical—the complete cycle of Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas.

Beethoven’s own instrument was the piano, and his early fame was as a performer and improviser. He composed his 32 Piano Sonatas throughout his career, and no two are the same. Each is a unique expression of Beethoven’s deepest musical thoughts and explorations, from tender, to humorous, to monumental. Even the early sonatas, purportedly influenced by Haydn and Mozart, are unmistakably stamped with Beethoven’s bold, audacious style.

Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas are the ultimate challenge for a pianist. The technical hurdles are notorious—Beethoven thought symphonically, and had no pity for the limitations of two human hands. He wrote long, singing, expressive and sometimes mysterious lines for what is ultimately a percussion instrument. At the same time, he brought a sense of whimsy and laughter to many movements of his sonatas, even in the most profound late sonatas.

There is a lot to admire in Levit’s admirable interpretations of this monumental oeuvre. His phrasing and tone are assured, big, and direct, his dynamic contrasts clear, his tempi forward-moving and energetic. He handles all the technical impossibilities with ease. He shines, in particular, in the muscular, propulsive sonatas: Opus 7 in E-flat, Opus 53 “Waldstein,” the thorny final movement of Opus 101.

The most impressive performance in the cycle is Levit’s playing of the Sonata in B-flat, Opus 106, the “Hammerklavier.” Over 40 minutes in length, this is Beethoven’s most difficult sonata, in terms of sheer technical demands and the mental and emotional stamina required to pull together the four movements, from explosive opening chords, to triumphant end.

The third movement, marked “Adagio sostenuto, Appassionata e con molto sentimento” (Slow and sustained, passionate, with the utmost feeling”) is more than a twenty minute outpouring of feeling and sorrow, it is a deep meditation on the human condition. The final movement contains some of the most uncompromising contrapuntal writing ever demanded of a musician -- the left hand must match the right hand in cascades of jumps, runs, and chords, all at breakneck tempo. Levit carries all this off with excitement, and even joy.

In Beethoven’s 250th birth year, Igor Levit adds his voice to the select pantheon of pianists who’ve dared to perform and record all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. Our Classical Album of the Week will provide many hours of enjoyment and awe for the Beethoven fan.

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.