BEETHOVEN: A Single Breath = Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110; Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111 – Beth Levin, p. – Navona Records NV 5908, 67:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Taking on the Mount Parnassus of piano sonatas – the last three of Beethoven, 1820-1822 – requires a degree of discipline, fortitude, and audacity that daunt even seasoned virtuosos. They embrace a world of subjective affects through variation and contrapuntal procedures in a manner that virtually transcends “music” in its traditional sense. While maintaining an improvisational guise, they meander through harmonic and motivic labyrinths that flow or rampage forward with an uncanny sense of artistic prescience. That these works prefigure the course of musical composition well into the next century and beyond merely adds to their legendary status as transcendent works conceived by a deaf musician whose world had been reduced to his interior life.
Beth Levin—a pupil of luminaries Rudolf Serkin, Leonard Shure, and Paul Badura-Skoda—opens with a pellucid and warmly etched rendition of the Vivace, ma non troppo of Op. 109. The E Minor Prestissimo, however, emanates an unruly spirit, the syncopations tending to obscure whatever melody attempts to emerge from the melee of canonic, often martial impulses. Suddenly, the last movement, Andante molto cantabile ed espessivo, casts us into the first of these sonatas’ variations on a splendidly serene theme; six, to be exact. Levin slows the original song down to a bare lullaby some might find too languid, a la Simone Dinnerstein. But if we accept Levin’s searching approach, we experience the sense of the music’s prodigious evolution even as the procession of notes creates it. To maintain the leisurely thread without permitting a sag in the music’s tension becomes the musical and intellectual challenge. The theme, even after a bravura variation, dissolves eventually to its mere harmonic outline, yet the tautness and interior anguish of the line remains, a marvel that must have well astounded Schoenberg and his ilk. Even in the throes of the canonic Variation 5 Levin manages a dancing gesture, certainly in homage to Bach. We pass through a pearly and insistent maze to hear the theme restated for what must serve as a recapitulation, almost in the spirit of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, where, too, the original theme stands unaffected by all it has surveyed.
The A-flat Major Sonata, a specialty of another piano luminary, Dame Myra Hess, receives pampered treatment from Levin, its pearly scales and arpeggios’ establishing the serene main theme that soon proceeds to a two-part canon. The downward scale already hints at the more tempestuous Allegro molto second movement. The flurry of trills and ornaments in the first movement seem to belie its sonata-form, hinting at a coloristic or harmony source of unity, more in the manner of Schubert or even later Schumann. The aggressive second movement in F Minor eschews ungainly percussion from Levin, despite the obvious power of her syncopated chords in C Major. The little Trio in D-flat asks Levin to make some beguiling colors, which she does, admirably. That the “scherzo” serves as an introduction to the complex last movement, whose Arioso dolente Vincent D’Indy called “one of the most poignant expressions of grief known to man.” The theme bears a strange similarity in shape to the famous Adagio of Albinoni. Beethoven blends variation form and fugal procedures ad libitum, even to point of reintroducing the angry tones from the scherzo. Levin reintroduces, too, the Arioso melody, now embellished an intensely expressive. For a brief moment, we think we hear the Intermezzo of Brahms, Op. 119, No. 1. The fugue then returns after some frightful, detached chords, but the main melody has been inverted. All of the subsequent movement suggests a liberation of transcendent will over the trials of tragic experience, and Levin does provide us a blaze of triumphant sound.
The piano sonority at the Maestoso opening of the C Minor Sonata sounds a bit thin, too much like a fortepiano. Levin’s lugubrious “overture” seethes with ‘Lisztian’ tension, the tempos quite recalling Clara Haskil’s canny way within these numinous labyrinths. The runs and cascades soon resemble a series of two- and three-part inventions, the turbulence more than not “borrowing” from the tempestuous Appassionata filigree. The jarring calm of the coda moves into C Major, though the bass part could be construed as a passage from Chopin. Levin shapes the Arietta as a simple song, yet still pacing thoughtfully through a sense of menace. But what follows are four variations and a fanciful coda not quite any music before or after. The notes virtually double in number with each successive beat, and the double trills either awe or confound, as our minds are capable of grasping their import. Beethoven’s liberation of the trill as an expressive device foreshadows Scriabin’s vision of the same effect. The rhythmic license of the variants provides another “wild” element in late Beethoven, since Levin has to execute some riffs that striding Joplin and jazzy Gershwin could admire. The dance at times becomes akin to an aural hallucination, interrupted by spasms of either pain or blinding light. Whether profoundly complex or naively simple, the journey fulfills the definition of “genius” by embracing both extremes at once. Levin has us thinking about such matters, given that Beethoven was said to have conceived these wonders “in a single breath.” Isn’t that how God created Adam, as seen by Michelangelo?