The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Pianist Robert Levin rocks out in the terrific all-Beethoven opener at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival

August 31, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

You could see it especially well because renowned Harvard pianist and music scholar Robert Levin (below) sat with his back to the audience, surrounded by five string players (two violins, two violas and a cello).

Even as his fingers scurried up and down the keyboard, Levin’s backlit arms and hands flailed above his head and his torso swayed back and forth.

Bob Levin was cooking.

He was downright rocking out.

Or as one veteran professional musician politely put it: “That was an experience!”

And indeed it was.

Levin was opening this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival with a chamber version of Beethoven’s magnificent Piano Concerto No. 4. (Levin has performed similar arrangements by Mozart at past festivals.)

Piano concertos just don’t come better than Beethoven’s Fourth.

But this was not your usual Fourth. In the days when professional symphony orchestras didn’t exist, Prince Lobkowitz commissioned this chamber version for more economical private performances.

And when he revised the score and “reduced” it, Beethoven parsed out the strings among the strings, but seems to have put some of the winds and horns into the piano part – along with some added elaborations.

The net effect? Lots and lots of extra notes and chords – heightened by the improvised and energetic cadenzas Levin is so justly famous for.

Some reduction!

This Fourth may be smaller in scale than the usual version, but it is even more impressive for the super-charged virtuosity in service of poetry. (In case you wonder, I still prefer the original setting.)

So when the final chords ended the work, the sold-out house jumped to its feet and roared in approval. It was quite the event to close out the all-Beethoven concert. It was fun. It was instructive. And besides, how often do you get to hear “new” Beethoven.

Earlier in the Sunday afternoon concert – the second performance of the program – local cellist Parry Karp (below) of the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet joined Levin, who showed his outstanding ability to blend and partner in a perfectly paced and executed playing of Beethoven’s “Seven Variations on ‘Bei Mannern welche Liebe fulhlen” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

With Token Creek co-director violinist Rose Mary Harbison (below), Levin performed the gorgeous and varied “Cockcrow” Violin Sonata in G Major, Op. 96, loaded with trill motifs. The violin part suffered from some pitch problems and thin tone, but in the end conviction made for a persuasive and expressive performance.

Besides Levin, the other star of this concert was Token Creek’s other co-director, prize-winning composer John Harbison.

The Ear thinks Harbison may well be the best explainer of music he has ever heard – and that includes Leonard Bernstein.

First standing and then sitting at the piano, Harbison explained without jargon how the works to be played would explore the way Beethoven was affected by Mozart, especially in the clarity of line.

Harbison explored how most great composers – like Beethoven – sit astride the traditional and the new whereas second or near-great composers tend towards one side or the other.

Harbison demonstrated Beethoven’s relatively simple and well-established harmonic language (the basic triad) and how it is countered by more novel uses of rhythm and dynamics.

There was more – including his high-spirited interview of Levin (below) about the unusual Beethoven score — and it all made such sense. You wish you could sit in on Harbison’s classes at MIT. One hopes he writes or compiles a book with these kind of personal essays on all kinds of music and composers. Classical music right now could sure use that kind of accessible, enjoyable and informative work.

Anyway, the intimate longtime festival – which the frantically busy John Harbison has said will end in a year or two — offered the usual amenities: an appreciative and informed audience; intermission treats of trail mix, wine, lemonade and conversation; and this year some sculptures (below bottom) by local artist Andree Valley on the lovely farm land and gardens that surround the warmly refurbished concert barn.

There is plenty more to the festival, which runs through Sept. 5. Here is a link to its website:

And if you care to compare, here is another review of the same Beethoven program by John W. Barker in Isthmus:

The festival continues on Tuesday with a lecture-recital on theme and variations with piano works by Schubert, Roger Sessions and John Harbison.

Then come four jazz cabaret performances.

And next weekend (Saturday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m.) comes an all-Bach concert by Emmanuel Music of Boston.

Were you there on Saturday or Sunday afternoon?

What did you think of Robert Levin, John Harbison and the all-Beethoven program? Of the setting?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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