CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Dip Your Ears: No. 268 (Robert Levin on Mozart's Piano)

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, Piano Sonatas
Robert Levin

The Compleat Mozartean

When historical performance practice performances were just becoming mainstream fare, in the mid- to late 90s, Robert Levin was the first address in most matters fortepiano. Certainly, his cycle of the Beethoven Piano Concertos (with Gardiner) was clearly the one to have and his Mozart concerto cycle-in-the-making (with Christopher Hogwood) was exciting and promising and sadly aborted as so many projects were, back then. (Incidentally, the Academy of Ancient Music is currently working with Levin on having the cycle completed by the band’s 50th anniversary next season!) Levin was the least professorial among the musicologist-pianists that were hammering away at these early instruments… and his instruments tended to sound better than was the low average back then.

Much has changed since these days, with a new generation of concert pianists who grew up natively on historical instruments and of course with the instruments themselves (think Paul McNulty!), which have improved dramatically in quality and sound. This, alas, is not the path that Robert Levin takes in these 2017/18 recordings of Mozart’s keyboard sonatas. He takes a step further (back?) towards historicism: He plays on Mozart’s own fortepiano, which can be viewed and occasionally heard at the Salzburg Mozart Residence. What he gains in authenticity, he loses, alas, in sound, because it might as well be admitted: The most interesting aspect about that instrument is its late owner.

Nor is Levin the kind of full-throttled pianist that many of his modern HIP competitors (Bezuidenhout, Brautigam et al.) are. Granted, you don’t need virtuosic skills to navigate through the Mozart sonatas to perfectly competent results and Levin is still a nimble, graceful performer at the (then) age of 71. But there’s something of a generous, pliable, amicable playfulness in the finest performances (like Bezuidenhout on historical instruments or William Youn on a modern one, to name only two outstanding recent such cycles) that I find missing here… and something of a sewing-machine element – lissome, granted – that I don’t particularly need. What Levin does give us, in terms of uniqueness, is some extra music. Apart from the standard 18 sonatas and the C minor Fantasy, he also adds three sonata movement fragments that Levin completed masterfully: Charming little bonbons that bring the set’s runtime to about seven hours. Whether those bits, along with ECM’s first-rate presentation and essay (or the lure of hearing this works on Mozart’s own instrument; see also “Koncz/Mozart”), are enough of a USP, well, that’ll be up to the most curious among Mozart listeners.

References: William Youn (Oehms); Ingrid Haebler (Denon); Mitsuko Uchida (Philips); Ronald Brautigam (BIS); Christian Zacharias (EMI issues, not Warner re-issue); Kristian Bezuidenhout (BIS)

See also the ionarts Mozart Sonata Cycle Survey

No comments: