A Throwback to an Ancient Era of Improvising Pianists
New Brunswick (Prudential Hall)
George Frideric Handel: Water Music: Suite No. 2 in D Major, HWV 349
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, op. 15 (cadenzas by Mr. Levin)
Robert Levin Improvisations
Felix Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 5 in D Major, “Reformation”, op. 107
Robert Levin (piano)
New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan (conductor)
R. Levin (© Clive Barda)
I have always been a fan of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, mostly because for many years it was an ensemble without a home, a strange situation among a leading orchestra for a large state in the Union. Now, the orchestra has for one of its homes – for it still performs concerts in New Brunswick – one of the finest venues on the East Coast, the Prudential Hall in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, or NJPAC for short. They have always had a bunch of excellent musicians, including many top-notch freelancers from New York City and over the years I heard them give, both in NJ and in Carnegie Hall, some excellent performances.
Each time I cross the Hudson River to go hear them in Newark, I regret the scarcity of my visits, but such is life, when you are surrounded by the best venues and best music right where you reside. That being said, on my last visit, just a 20 minutes ride on the train from Penn Station (it would take me longer to get to the Brooklyn Academy of Music!), I heard some very decent, highly professional performances of works by Handel and Mendelssohn. Yet, it was the Robert Levin Show that I went to see and it, arguably, was the highest point in otherwise a standard program, loved by the no-longer-local patrons of Newark. Yes, over the years there were some “changes” and the music-loving audiences left their town in hordes, moving to farther away communities.
I hope it is not dismissive to apply the name of “show” to the excellent performances by Mr. Levin, but he is about the only artist nowadays who injects some needed life into the concert experience. For those who still need to be reminded who he is... Well, I could devote the next 5,000 characters to describe a quarter of his accomplishments, or just say: 1) a superb pianist comfortable with about any and every style of music, be it solo or chamber 2) professor of music at Harvard University (recently Professor Emeritus, to be precise) 3) one of the foremost authorities on Mozart and an author of extraordinary completions of unfinished works by Mozart and finally 4) one of a very few pianists who improvises during his live performances. The other one who comes to mind is Venezuelan Gabriela Montero, who devotes part of her recitals to creating live improvisations on themes offered (usually sung, and poorly sung at that!) by audience members. However, his improvisations are unique for two reasons: cadenzas and fantasias.
Mr. Levin’s cadenzas to Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos are unique, as he tries – and generally succeeds – to maintain spontaneity and inventiveness and as he says, to “erase the memory” of a previous experience, in order to make each one fresh. Not being an improviser myself, I don’t know how it is possible, for we do tend to rely on our instincts and our bag of tricks to create a work of music on the spot. Here is a little aside: several years ago I was, then for the first time, at the performance of a Mozart concerto by Mr. Levin and approached his assurances of originality of the improvised cadenza with an element of mild disbelief. It was incredibly inventive, well put together and made my jaw drop – as in every consecutive time since then – but I still could not believe that he didn’t play the same thing with a possible change here or there. A member of the orchestra, someone who I knew could not be fooled easily, assured me that the previous night Mr. Levin played a cadenza that really sounded different.
This time, as is his want, as the orchestra readied itself on the stage, Mr. Levin prefaced his performance of the Beethoven Concerto in C major with a talk on the matter of cadenza performances during Mozart’s and Beethoven’s time. Stressing the fact that it was customary for both composers to improvise cadenzas on the spot, he brought up two interesting and intriguing thoughts: first, that Mozart would have it done only once, as he probably didn’t have too many chances for repeat performances of any of his concertos; two, that Beethoven’s own cadenzas for the first four of the concertos were written out only for the use of his students. That was a bold statement, but knowing Mr. Levin’s encyclopedic knowledge one should accept this statement at face value. Thus, our entertaining performer assured his audience that he shall proceed in a manner that would be de rigueur during Beethoven’s times: I may only add that his improvised cadenza would make the composer proud.
The performance itself, assisted aptly by the band conducted by the esteemed British maestro Nicholas McGegan, was sprightly, nimble, light-footed and very classical just as one would expect. In the slow movement Largo there were, alas, some coordination problems, when I had a feeling that the orchestra was, in several instances, just a tad behind it’s soloist, who tried to keep the momentum or the sense of a phrase going. That was a rather unexpected occurrence, considering how experienced an opera conductor Maestro McGegan is and how he is used to accompanying soloists. Though the tempi itself were on the fast side, that didn’t affect the overall clarity of playing, especially knowing the propensities of Mr. Levin’s piano playing. As he announced before the start, rather than sitting idly during the orchestral tuttis, he was assisting the musicians with some chords, ornamentation, or other harmonically justified embellishments. As classical tradition demands, there were also some spontaneous ornamentations in the solo part, especially in the Largo and final Rondo: Allegro. Overall, it was a model of lucidity, intelligence, excellent keyboard command and understanding of the style. Not unexpected either!
Regarding the cadenza itself, or rather the cadenzas in the first and third movements, moments we all were waiting for, Mr. Levin sure did deliver. That afternoon, his first movement cadenza was very Beethovenian: stormy, tempestuous and vivacious. It was, as one could expect, based on thematic material from the movement, though it started in a similar manner to a cadenza of the later Third Piano Concerto. The pianistic material for this 2 minute long improvisation came this time not only from piano segments, but from the orchestra motivic material and was very skillfully manipulated through a web of modulation and a variety of moods. I must say that I have heard less impressive cadenzas - nowadays pianists again try to write their own for Mozart and Beethoven concerti – and those would be written ones, not improvised full speed on the spot. There was also another, shorter cadenza in the finale: again very much in fashion of the movement, with much brio, with some blurred passages that likely would be blurred even under the composer’s own fingers.
All in all it was a captivating, charismatic and appealing performance of the work that is deceptively easy and simple: what made it work so well was the vigorous approach, a proper touch, and a nice cooperation with the generally excellently orchestra with good solo contributions. As our pianist was overheard saying: when playing Mozart and Beethoven, one thing I don’t have to practice are the cadenzas.
After intermission came the main part of the Robert Levin Show: piano improvisations on themes offered by the audience. The usher brought a large jar filled with pieces of music-paper on which, during the intermission, knowledgeable patrons wrote their themes: some based on Beethoven’s music, others not. From that jar, Mr. Levin pulled out three and imagine my surprise when one of the them happened to be offered by your reviewer. That was a great surprise, though what I was waiting for was a miracle, as I had written several motifs/themes, all coming from Beethoven’s works without piano and hoping that our maestro would create a three-part fantasia. And three-part it indeed was, with the first music material provided by the conductor Nicholas McGegan himself, second coming from the ubiquitous Symphony No. 5 – what else, especially since Maestro Levin pleaded NOT to use this music – and last was an opening theme of the “Spring” Sonata for piano and violin. The galloping first theme was immediately harmonized and developed into something that could be mistaken for the piano reduction of a symphony or a concerto, then segued smoothly to the finale of the Fifth Symphony with some original harmonies and transposed to different keys, mostly in a chordal framework, finally to a skillful transition into the last segment based on the finale of the “Spring” Sonata, with a totally different take on the well known music with motifs from piano sonatas, but the general character of the original. Do I need to convince the dear reader how difficult this task it is to improvise for an uninterrupted seven minutes, how easily it could fall off the musical tracks, what intense concentration it demands of the improviser? Well, Mr. Levin is unique and he offers his audiences something that almost no other classical musician nowadays does.
The Symphony No. 5 by Mendelssohn felt almost like a letdown after the exhilaration of observing this highest quality musical tight-rope. When one mentions early works of Mendelssohn one must remember hat they came from the pen of a composer that in his late teens created such masterpieces as Overture to the Midsummer Night’s Dream or Octet in E flat, in other words composer who started on the top. This symphony received an attractive, well thought-out reading and presented an ensemble in a very positive light. Strings had warm, burnished sound, winds and brass were impressive throughout and orchestra seemed to be fully engaged under the relaxed guidance of Maestro McGegan who, without a baton, gave an impression of guiding his ensemble rather than urging them to play. It is good to be sometimes reminded that barely 20 minutes from Manhattan we have another excellent group that we, spoiled New Yorkers, seem to forget about. And that they play in acoustically wonderful venue, which doesn’t hurt either.