The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical Music Q&A: Harvard scholar Robert Levin talks about playing two-piano works, completing Mozart compositions and performing chamber arrangements of Mozart’s piano concertos.

August 25, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

One of the regular performers at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival has been Harvard professor Robert Levin. Levin (below) has finished incomplete Mozart works, including the Requiem; he improvises cadenzas to concertos by Mozart and Beethoven; he often performs with his pianist-wife Ya-Fei Chuang; and he has recorded Bach, Mozart and Beethoven on the modern piano and the period fortepiano for major labels.

For more about his accomplishments, visit YouTube and Wikipedia:

For this summer’s festival, Levin and his wife (below) will perform a program of music for two pianos, including Debussy’ s “En blanc et noir,” Poulenc’s Sonata, Witold Lutoslawki’s “Paganini” Variations, John Harbison’s “Diamond Watch” and Stravinsky’s Sonata (which was premiered in Madison with the composer and famed teacher Nadia Boulanger with whom Levin studied).

The last performance is TONIGHT at 8 p.m. and tickets are still available.Visit the festival’s site for more information about the program, ticket availability and directions:

Then on Saturday at 8 p.m. (tickets available) and Sunday at 4 p.m. (sold-out), Levin will perform in two Mozart works, including a chamber arrangement of the “Coronation” Piano Concerto and his reconstruction of piano trio. (A Divertimento for violin and strings is also on the program.)

Levin (below left, with festival co-director John Harbison at last summer’s festival) graciously took time out from his busy schedule to provide The Ear with an e-mail Q&A:

What do you want to say about the music for two pianos you will play with your wife?

This is a program we played at MIT a year ago April. We find these works complement and contrast one another very well, and of course the Stravinsky has a Madison connection, having been premiered at Edgewood College in 1944.

What are the challenges of composing for two pianos and then playing works written for two pianos?

The medium is more flexible and freewheeling than piano four-hands, as collisions and limitations of register (one player for each half of the keyboard, more or less) are not problems in the two-piano repertoire.  Hence two-piano works tend to be more flamboyant.  The Stravinsky is an exception in this regard, being for the most part quite melodious and conversational.

You will perform a chamber version of Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto, one of several Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos you have done in this before at Token Creek (below, Levin playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto last summer)  And recently I heard a reduction of a late Haydn symphony by Salomon. How common were such reductions, why were they done and how good are they in general?

The primary purpose was commercial—allowing performances in domestic and less formal music-making venues.

Unlike the Haydn symphonies, Mozart’s string versions of the piano concertos do not involve transcription:  the wind (and brass and timpani) parts are written ad libitum, meaning that they add color but are not essential, whereas in the late piano concertos the wind parts have considerable soloistic responsibilities, which are one of the glories of those pieces.

You will perform a Mozart Piano Trio that you have reconstructed and finished. As someone who is renowned internationally for his Mozart reconstructions that are also performing editions (the Requiem and a Mass), and who is known for his Mozart performances with improvised cadenzas, are there certain guiding principles, rules, assumptions or methods that you use when you “channel” Mozart?

There certainly are.  One has to have studied Mozart’s structure, rhetoric, harmonic progressions, character portrayal, etc., in great detail so as to make it as difficult as possible for the listener to be aware of the moment in which Mozart ceased to notate the individual movement.  (In fact it is rare that all parts break off at the same time; there are gaps here and there before the last instrument breaks off.)

Are there misconceptions about Mozart (Mozart) or his music on the part of the public that you would like to see corrected?

This is too large a subject to get into here. The primary problem is to see Mozart as pretty, elegant, tasteful, and thus devoid of passion, strong emotions, risk, and volatility.  I have spent much of my life as a performer combating this view.

Will this be the world premiere of the Mozart reconstruction? Do you have plans to perform it elsewhere and eventually to publish and record it?

The D-minor movement was premiered at the Sarasota Music Festival last June.  The D-major movement was given a first performance in a private reading honoring its dedicatee, the Bach scholar Professor Christoph Wolff.  I have prepared a third completion of a finale in G major and we will perform that at Token Creek.  Eventually the pieces will be published, but there are no present publication or recording plans.

Posted in Classical music

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