If you come away with a single impression of Beth Levin's playing of Beethoven's monumental "Diabelli" Variations, Op. 120, it's commitment. She is aware of her technique and happy to use it in almost every bar to convey Beethoven's fire, love of variety, irony and (his) determination to make the most from the least. She's emphatically on Beethoven's side, so to put it. And at the same time, her playing suffers neither from being too much in awe of the composer's ability to conjure so much from so little, nor does it underestimate that achievement.
Levin's is not an interpretation which you can ignore or about which you are likely to be lukewarm. Few would claim that it has the consistent profundity or insight which those by Kovacevich (Onyx 4035), Brendel (Philips 426232) or Richter (Philips 422416) have. But Levin's is by no means an errant account, or one lacking in animation, or in determination. Indeed, it begins with what some listeners may find too "determined" a pace and has many moments when tempi are taken perhaps too literally: the end of variations 30 [tr.31] and beginning of 31 [tr.32], for instance; in the first case the andante is a little too much so, in the second (largo) there is not quite enough breadth. Expression tumbles over pure sense.
Yet at other times, the idea that these are forays into Romantic pianism loses out to an almost mechanical measure – the allegro 25th [tr.26] for example, is too short not to be whipped into submission by a more sprightly, lighter touch. Yet in other places, Levin moves very quickly on her feet and deft and delicate – though never quite sinuous – successions of notes and phrases make real impact. In the same vein, she seems happiest and most at ease during the more contemplative passages, those, like the fughetta, 24 [tr.25], for example, where quiet and tenderness are essential. Redolent of Beethoven's final piano sonatas, these variations suggest a sense of the sublime – at most acceptance, and not resignation, which Levin conveys admirably.
But then some of the contrasts, including those in the 33rd [tr.34] variation, are almost too harsh in Levin's hands. Greater evenness in the service of her eagerness to represent Beethoven's true thought to us. But since we can never know exactly how Beethoven is likely to have approached his task, although we do know he, too, was enthusiastic, it is legitimate for more of the pianist's considered personality to be apparent than seems to be the case with this recording by Levin.
It's a live recording; indeed, there are a couple of moments towards the end when the sound wavers (and reverts, it seems, to mono). Otherwise the acoustic is conducive to the forward thought of her approach and the booklet that comes with the recording useful, if perhaps a little too slanted towards promoting Levin, rather than the music. If you want a fresh, though uneven, account of one of the repertoire's greatest peaks and have others with which to compare it, this is worth a listen.
Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.