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Igor Levit returns to the mountaintop

On Saturday night in Jordan Hall, the pianist traversed Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas

German pianist Igor Levit.Felix Broede/Sony Classical

You can tell a lot about a person by what they first say when they enter a room — and how they say it.

When the German pianist Igor Levit made his debut album for Sony Classical in 2013, he avoided the standard flashy fare of a young recitalist, or the bravura displays of a conquering concerto soloist. Instead he offered up a bold traversal of Beethoven’s late sonatas, the artistic Everest of the entire piano literature.

Convention has it that this manifestly profound and notoriously difficult music should be reserved for a player’s later years, after their wisdom (if they are lucky) has had time to catch up with their technique. But Levit clearly does not hold that view, and by presenting these works simultaneously with youthful brio and penetrating insight, he managed to project an air of both audacity and high-seriousness.


In the decade since that initial release, Levit has managed to sustain these qualities across a wide range of repertoire, but for his Celebrity Series recital Saturday night in Jordan Hall, he returned, so to speak, to the source. It was all late-Beethoven, the final three sonatas. No filler. No setup. Just those vertiginously beautiful works: Opp. 109, 110, and 111.

These sonatas are among the core documents of Beethoven’s late period, a time when the composer not only changed how music sounded but, in the words of the scholar Maynard Solomon, “forever enlarged the sphere of human experience accessible to the creative imagination.” To encounter one of the late sonatas on a recital program is a treat. Two is a rare event. And three . . . is the artistic equivalent of a spaceflight to the moon. You may have no idea how it will go — but you want to be on that ship.

It came as little surprise therefore that Jordan Hall was sold out for the occasion. Levit began the evening by easing into the gently cascading opening bars of Op. 109, capturing their in-media-res quality, as if the music has always been there flowing before us, but now, suddenly, we are paying attention.


And that attention was rewarded throughout the work as Levit emphasized the expressive contrasts in Beethoven’s sonic world, finding balanced, glowing sonorities for the music’s moments of repose, while at the same time making sure its more earthy eruptions flashed up from the bass with both precision and percussive vehemence, like meticulously calculated explosions. The work’s brisk central movement, marked Prestissimo, moved along with rare propulsive intensity.

Levit’s take on the Sonata Op. 110 was most memorable in its moments of suspended weightlessness, when the pianist seemed to bring out the searching quality and beautiful strangeness of this music. That unearthly beauty reaches its pinnacle in Op. 111, and in the series of sublime variations that make up its closing Arietta movement. Through this roughly 18 minutes of music, Beethoven bids farewell to the genre as a whole, and perhaps, as many have heard in the past, to something far more profound. As one character in Thomas Mann’s novel “Doctor Faustus” explains, the music takes its leave of the merely personal and somehow enters the domain of the mythic or the collective, sounding ultimately as “a silent, deep gaze into the eyes for one last time.”

On Saturday, Levit conveyed the breadth and depth of this movement, creating from its disparate materials a kind of self-encapsulated world.


After being immersed in such transporting art, as Levit seemed to fully realize, applause can feel jarring, and so between Opp. 109 and 110, he declined to pause for clapping, instead preserving the music’s spell by sewing the two works together with a brief yet capacious silence. The effect was magical, as if dissolving the sharp borders between these works could remind you of the profundity of their common source. As if all of this music is, on some level, continuous. After Op. 111, however, there was in both a literal sense and in some deeper way, no music left to play. A terminus had been reached. A farewell had been delivered. The audience now at last had its word, releasing its pent-up appreciation. The ovation was vociferous.


Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston

At Jordan Hall, Saturday night

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.