12/15/20 Eve of Beethoven’s 250th Birthday
This was also published in ConcertoNet.com
Igor Levit, the young German-Russian
pianist, knows how to get to the heart of a matter.
In 2016, he delayed a performance to
address the audience on tolerance and human rights. This May he live-streamed
Erik Satie’s Vexations for a global audience, repeating the same four lines for
nearly 20 hours to express the frustration of artists during the pandemic. Without
fanfare, he has recorded the complete 32 Beethoven piano sonatas for release
during the composer’s 250th birthday year.
Now, on the eve of that birthday, I have
the pleasure of reviewing something much shorter, but perhaps even more to the
point: Levit’s performance of the Ode to Joy from the Ninth
Symphony, as transcribed by Franz Liszt. This transcription is less than four
minutes in length but acts as a punctuation mark for all we have suffered,
endured, and perhaps triumphed over in the memorable year of 2020.
The transcription begins
at the point where the cellos and basses softly announce the familiar theme. It
ends with some Lisztian flourishes and sinks back into the simplicity of the
opening well before the first words ever heard in a symphony: “O Freunde, nicht
diese Töne.” (“Friends, let’s not have these somber
Of course, there
are no cellos, basses, and baritones in this recording. There is only Igor
Levit. And Beethoven.
The theme begins
meekly, in naked simplicity. It is a handful of seeds—plain, homely, covered
with soil—sown by a farmer with a great vision. The farmer knows it will take much
work, much cultivation to bring these small unprepossessing pieces to fruition.
They look like little bits of stone, with no value. But with care and
nurturing, they take root and sprout. Fast forward to a time when all the previously
untilled land—everything we think of as dirt, mud, and filth—is covered with glistening
greenery, and the seed has turned into a cornfield, a forest, a living world.
is nothing if not organic. Like seeds with careful tending, the tendrils of his
music spread and insinuate themselves into our souls. A man of the cloth as
well as a composer and musician, Liszt knew what he was doing when he took
Beethoven’s own development of this theme early in the Ninth pretty much as is,
then let it grow naturally into an inevitable conclusion. Liszt hands it off to
the performer, and it is up to Levit to interpret the shape and flow of this
little piece over the course of three minutes and forty seconds. This he does
with customary brilliance, turning a short-lived miniature into a harkening of eternity.
And so together,
we may say, Happy Birthday, Herr Beethoven. And thank you.