The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: Acclaimed Harvard pianist-scholar Robert Levin to open Token Creek Chamber Music Festival this Saturday and Sunday with Beethoven

August 26, 2010
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By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday at 8 p.m. and again on Sunday at 4 p.m., the pianist-scholar Robert Levin, who teaches at Harvard, will open the annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival.

(The 2010 festival, which runs from Aug. 28 through Sept. 5, takes place in DeForest in a restored and refurbished barn, below. It features two classical programs with two performances each; a lecture-recital; on Theme and Variations including music by Schubert, Roger Sessions and John Harbison; four jazz cabarets (of which three are sold out); and a closing concert of Bach works by Emmanuel Music of Boston.)

Robert Levin is a musician for all seasons.

He has completed Mozart’s unfinished Requiem and his version has been frequently performed and recorded several times.

He has recorded many Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos on the period instrument the fortepiano, to critical acclaim.

On the modern piano, he has recorded J.S. Bach’s English Suites and works by the 20th century French composer Henri Dutilleux.

At Token Creek he will perform an arrangement of Beethoven’s magisterial Piano Concerto No.4 for string quartet and piano (he has done similar arrangements of Mozart piano concertos in the past). He will also accompany Token Creek co-director Rose Mary Harbison is Beethoven’s fabulously beautiful Violin Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 96.

For information about programs, tickets, directions and reservations, call 608-241-2525 or use this link:

The ever-busy Levin (below), current president of the International J.S. Bach Competition, was flying between Leipzig, Germany, the US and Taiwan. Nonetheless, he graciously agreed to an e-mail Q&A with The Ear:

Historically and artistically, what brought about these chamber arrangements of piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven? The lack of professional orchestras? The interest in Hausmusik?

In most cases such transcriptions were due to commercial considerations: sales of parts made money for publishers and composers.  In the case of the Beethoven Fourth Concerto, such an arrangement made it possible for the dedicatee of the concerto (Prince Lobkowitz) to put on performances of the piece without hiring an orchestra.

How are these arrangements different or rewarding for you to play compared to your role as a performer of the regular orchestral versions? Do they work artistically as well as works of scholarship?

They are not at all works of scholarship, but utterly practical in their gestation and effect. Naturally the effect is more intimate in a chamber setting and more theatrical with orchestra.

In the case of the Mozart “arrangements,” the winds are merely omitted and not a note of the string or piano parts is changed.

In the case of the Beethoven/Pössinger arrangement of the Fourth Concerto, the five strings parts have to account for the essential orchestral texture; only the second movement, which calls for strings alone, requires no arrangement (by having both violas play the orchestral viola line).

But Beethoven rewrote numerous passages in the solo piano part, demanding a piano of wider range than the one for which the concerto was written (ascending beyond c”” to f””); many of the rewritten passages are considerably more virtuosic as well.

What would you like to public to know about or pay attention to in these arrangements or unknown works when you perform them?

A sense of novelty may draw an audience to such a performance, but it is the communicative power of the music that remains of primary importance.  Regarding details of the arrangement, see above.

What attracts you to unfinished and unknown works by the great masters? What lessons do we learn from them?

We learn not only a good deal about the compositional process, but we often find some of the most personal and characteristic ideas of a composer in works not pursued to their end.

Sometimes they are abandoned for qualitative reasons, in which case it is best to leave them undisturbed.

But often there are mere practical reasons (an expected performance fell through, or a commission that would bring in money immediately intervened) that account for the unfinished piece.

In such cases a speculative attempt at completion can give the listener a sense of what might have been, though of course it can never replace the hand of the genius.

As an expert and scholar, do you expect that a lot more unknown works or arrangements exist by Beethoven, Mozart and others (Haydn, Schubert, Bach, whomever) that are waiting to be discovered and revived?

Despite the ravages of war and the increased examination of the contents of public and private collections, hitherto unknown works continue to surface.  That will undoubtedly continue.

Posted in Classical music

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