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29.6.08

À mon chevet: Opera and the Morbidity of Music

Joseph Kerman, Opera and the Morbidity of Music

Beethoven, Piano Concertos, Levin/Gardiner
À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.
One [performer] who does not play [Beethoven's] own cadenzas is Robert Levin, the fortepianist and musicologist who has developed an impressive gift for improvisation in the styles of Mozart and Beethoven. His recent series of Beethoven concerto recordings with John Eliot Gardiner gives us a sense -- sometimes a vivid sense -- of what the concerto was like in its pretextual stage when it was dependent on personal performance. Flamboyant, powerful, and -- the first time you hear them at least -- admirably unpredictable, Levin's cadenzas make these recordings distinctive, indeed unique.

Of course, all improvisation is part prestidigitation. The musician has his formulas, as the conjuror has his tricks; if a virtuoso is like an athlete in some ways, he is like an illusionist in other ways. Levin creates the magical illusion of a pocket of music history innocent of and prior to scores -- though not of course innocent of cues and aides-mémoires. His art is built on internalizing historical documents like the opus 77 and opus 80 fantasies, which capture spontaneity and preserve it like a pinned butterfly. In his case preservation is accomplished through recording, and his recorded cadenzas and ornaments bring us closer to the actual experience of improvisation than any scores can.

-- Joseph Kerman, Opera and the Morbidity of Music (2008), "Text and Act: Beethoven's Concertos," pp. 190-91
Kerman published this essay in the New York Review of Books in 1999. In it he reviewed the Robert Levin recording he is discussing in this passage, as well as Carl Dahlhaus's book on Beethoven's concertos, released in the same year. The recording, to my dismay, has been discontinued, although you can still buy one of the volumes, with the Emperor Concerto and the Choral Fantasy.

1 comment:

Lindemann said...

I didn't know those Levin/Gardiner Beethoven recordings had been discontinued. I bought them when they came out (I used to be, like, a Robert Levin superfan). It's too bad they preserved the Emperor/Choral Fantasy one only, as the volume with 3 and 4 is probably my favorite of the series.