Beth Levin Plays Beethoven Sonatas with Power and Insight
Since when, in 2012, could a performance of Beethoven piano sonatas possibly be newsworthy? Doesn’t it make more sense to spread the word about new composers pushing the envelope and putting new ideas to work? To a degree, yes, but Beethoven was doing that two hundred years ago. That his “transcendent sonatas” could be as transcendent and even state-of-the-art today as they were almost two hundred years ago speaks for itself, as Beth Levin reminded a rare, intimate, semi-private gathering at Faust Harrison Pianos (open to the public with RSVP) in midtown last night. It’s one thing to hear these well-loved works late at night while multi-tasking, but nothing beats an immersion in their torrential power and anguish in live setting. Levin’s personal connection and deep affinity for the three Beethoven sonatas on the bill – Nos. 109-111 – made itself obvious from the beginning. But beyond the alternately harrowing and mystical quality of her playing, what was just as revelatory is that she’d programmed the three pieces as a suite. Imputing intentions to an artist or composer can be risky, but by the end of the performance, Levin left no doubt that Beethoven had created these works as an integral whole. Playing a big, robust, restored 1887 Steinway, she brought out every bit of lingering otherworliness in the rapturously hypnotic variations that serve as perhaps the most vivid link connecting the three sonatas, along with plenty of wrathful firepower.
There were brief pauses between the works: each is quite a workout for a performer. “I needed some vodka after that one,” Levin joked after the first. “Me too!” someone in the front row responded. If in fact Levin wasn’t joking and she actually did take a slug, it didn’t affect her. Her prodigious technique is well known, but what was most striking was how closely she followed the trajectory of the pieces, an emotional roller coaster ride. The story of Beethoven being almost completely deaf and in failing health, no doubt exacerbated by heavy drinking, when he wrote these, is also well known – are these works a self-penned obituary, a requiem for a great talent reduced to zero by cruel stroke of fate? This performance offered strong evidence of that.
The high point among many was the third movement of Op. 110, its inescapable, anguished resonance foreshadowing the Chopin E Minor prelude. In retrospect, madness seems to be be emerging from around the corners in Op. 111, although it’s the madness of a genius. That series of simple, argumentative fortissimo pedal chords early on? That blithe scherzo that leaps out of nowhere following one of several long, overtone-inducing trills? Where did that come from? Levin handled them matter-of-factly, one by one, and made them seem completely natural. When the sonata finally closed on an unexpectedly peaceful note – yet another surprise element – the crowd sat reflectively silent for several seconds before rising to their feet, stunned.
The piano showroom is a treasure trove of lustrous Bosendorfers, Steinways, Mason-Hamlins and more, all of which seem to be silently luring the viewer to try out a chord or two – “C minor seventh over here! No, ME, not that one!” – and also features the occasional solo performance by an A-list artist, such as this one. It’s worth bookmarking their site and checking back to see what they might have in store.