Q+A with Fortepianist Robert Levin

By February 24, 2016Blog

1109_robert_levinAcclaimed fortepianist Robert Levin will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with H+H at All Beethoven on February 26 and 28.

Q: Why did you choose Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto for these performances?
Robert Levin: It is one of Beethoven’s most radiant works, exuding serenity, warmth, and profound spirituality. The second movement, said by Owen Jander and others to depict Orpheus’s journey to the underworld to plead for the release of Euridice, is a dramatic dialogue of shattering intensity. With only two exceptions Mozart’s keyboard music was written for five-octave piano.  Beethoven’s keyboard music through Op. 31 is written for this range, but from there on the range he employs adds two keys in the treble, then two more, then expands to five and a half octaves, to six, and finally to six and a half. With the expanding range comes an expansion in string tension and power. One could say that during Beethoven’s lifetime the piano developed as swiftly as the computer has in ours.

Q: How do you select a particular fortepiano for a performance?
Robert Levin: The character and color of the instrument should be apt for the work performed. In the case of the Fourth Concerto, Beethoven calls for an instrument whose hammers can strike all three strings per note, or only two, or only one. Modern pianos have a shifting soft pedal, but on Steinways the shift reduces the three strings to two. No piano since the Broadwoods of the early 19th century were manufactured with a shifting soft pedal allowing three, two, or one string as standard equipment. When I recorded all five Beethoven concertos plus the original finale to No. 2 and the Choral Fantasy with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, I insisted on using five different pianos, so the listener could hear how the evolution in Beethoven’s musical language and aspirations went hand in glove with the developments of piano-making. This H+H performances will feature a copy of a Viennese piano made by Anton Walter and his son with the one-two-three-string options, allowing listeners a rare opportunity to experience what Beethoven had in mind in the second movement of the concerto.

Q: Are you using Beethoven’s cadenzas, or your own? Is there an improvisatory element to this performance?
RL: As I always do in performances of Mozart and Beethoven concertos, I am improvising the cadenzas—one each in first and last movement and two so-called “lead-ins”—shorter improvised passages that lead back to the principal theme in the rondo.  I do this without preparation, so what the audience will hear is in every way spontaneous—and, need I say, fraught with risk.

Q: How do you prepare for a concerto appearance in the months, days, and hours before the show?
RL: There is a combination of intense work at the instrument and philosophical reflection to shape the characterization and narrative of the work.

Q: When did you first play a historical piano? What’s the learning curve like adapting to it for a modern pianist?
RL: In 1974, I attended a Mozart conference in Washington D.C. Malcolm Bilson brought a copy of a Dulcken piano made by Philip Belt. It was the first time I heard such an instrument live. I was captivated by it and by the flair and expressive subtlety that Malcolm brought to his performances. In 1980 he suggested that we make a recording of Mozart four-hand music on his instrument. When I observed that I had no performing experience on period pianos he said he was sure I would pick up the hang of it quickly. So I flew to Ithaca and spent an enthralling weekend reading through Mozart pieces with him, and he patiently made observations here and there about technical and physical details I needed to adjust to the characteristics of the sonority and action of the piano. We made three recordings together, gave many concerts in the United States and abroad, and he has generously made available instruments for my concerts throughout the years—at first when I did not yet own one, and later when I was touring and needed an instrument with a particular range, such as in my Beethoven recitals with cellist Steven Isserlis outside of Boston.

Q: You’ve lived in Boston for a long time. Do you have any interesting Handel and Haydn Society memories—either as a performer or perhaps as a concertgoer?
RL: I have had memorable experiences with H+H under a number of conductors. In particular, the years with Christopher Hogwood, with whom I recorded eight CDs of Mozart concertos, were absolute high points of my artistic life. I collaborated with Chris all over the world, including the only live recordings ever made of Mozart concertos on Mozart’s own piano in Salzburg. I have collaborated with Richard Egarr both in performance and at the International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition in Leipzig, where, as president of the Competition, I invited him to be a member of the harpsichord jury.  Now I greatly look forward to my performance with Richard Egarr and H+H, which has celebrated a glorious history of two centuries and is one of the cornerstones of Boston musical life.

To hear Robert Levin bring Beethoven’s concerto to life, buy tickets now to All Beethoven!