An evening with Robert and Wolfgang

Robert Levin in action (Photo credit Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Anyone expecting a ‘traditional’ concert experience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday night would have been disappointed – or maybe pleasantly surprised. Consistently innovative, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) are offering a new music concept in the form of The Works, in which you can learn more about a Great Classical Masterpiece in a fun and informal way in the company of the orchestra and an ‘expert’. Future events include harpsichordist Laurence Cummings on Bach, but for the first event of this new series, the OAE were joined by charismatic pianist and renowned Mozart specialist Robert Levin.

Levin, who has a passionate and forensic interest in the minutiae of Mozart’s music and his creative life and compositional processes, is a lively and engaging speaker. While not everyone may like his particular brand of New York Jewish ebullience nor necessarily agree with his “scholarship”, there is no doubting his infectious enthusiasm for his subject. He has studied Mozart’s manuscripts in microscopic detail to winkle out all the details of his creative process and to attempt to understand his precise vocabulary of rhythm, melody, counterpoint, harmony, architecture. As Levin says, “Mozart hides sophistication behind apparent simplicity” (thus, calling to mind Schnabel’s famous quote about Mozart’s music). His detailed study of Mozart informs both his teaching and his playing.

A few years ago, I attended a study day with him entitled ‘Mozart and the Piano’ in which he examined the evidence to suggest that Mozart was not only intimate with all the quirks and foibles, strengths and weaknesses of the musicians with whom he worked (a bassoon part written for a player with loose teeth, for example) but also with the capabilities – and limitations – of the instruments at his disposal. It was a fascinating and entertaining angle on Mozart’s music.

“If Mozart had had access to a modern Steinway, just think what he would have written!” Levin declared provocatively at the start of The Works. Of course, as Levin immediately countered, we cannot make such assumptions: Mozart worked with what was available at the time – the harpsichord, fortepiano and fledgling piano. What we can do, however, is look at the documentary evidence – the drafts, the autographed scores, his letters – to gain a glimpse into the compositional world of Mozart.

Levin has argued, convincingly, that the paper, ink and quill that Mozart used all point to a prolific genius who could turn his hand to almost anything, a consummate multi-tasker who would sketch out a draft of a piano concerto and then set it aside to work on more lucrative projects.

He also feels Mozart was the “Duke Ellington” of the 18th century, endlessly improvising off the cuff, and knocking off dazzling cadenzas at the drop of a hat. He didn’t need to write them down because each time he performed he would do something new.

Levin is also an improviser, and his intimate study of Mozart allows him to offer suggestions as to how Mozart may have performed (directing from the piano, of course) which sound fresh and natural, but never ersatz. Sometimes there is an astonishing latitude in Levin’s interpretations, but at no point have I ever felt, when hearing Levin perform, that he is taking unfounded liberties with the material. Rather, there is a sense of someone who is thoroughly immersed in the ‘language’ of Mozart, but who does not hold up what is written in the score as “sacred”. A degree of danger and unexpectedness is what makes Levin’s playing so intriguing, and he believes he has a responsibility to create something “new” in each performance he gives.

I am no purist about historically accurate performance on historically accurate instruments: I feel it is impossible for us to truly recreate the sound, feel, nuance, atmosphere of Mozart’s music in his time – and certain attempts to do this can come across as either overly esoteric, or an undignified ‘Disneyfication’ of the music. Robert Levin’s approach offers some interesting and thought-provoking angles on the subject: in his hands, Mozart’s idiosyncrasies become a wonderful asset and serve as a pretext for a better understanding of the man and his music, as well as reviving the art of improvisation in classical music and promoting novelty in musical performance.

Robert Levin talking about how differently things would have been done in Mozart’s day.

Robert Levin on improvisation in the Piano Concerto No. 23 from the OAE blog, and on Radio 4’s Today programme.

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