Robert Levin: Breathing New Life Into Masterpieces

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robert Levin (piano/director), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 03.11.2011 (SRT)

Mozart: Divertimento in F, K138
Schubert: Symphony No. 3
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3

Robert Levin is a fantastic scholar as well as a fantastic musician, and much of his musical reputation rests on the research he has done into performance practice in Beethoven and Mozart’s day. He brought this to bear triumphantly on Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto tonight, making the work sound fresh and new, breathing new life into a masterpiece that I thought I knew inside out. He scrapes away the layers of modern performance practice to reveal what he believes the music sounded like in Beethoven’s day, directing from the piano placed in the very midst of the orchestra and leading without dominating.

His approach to Beethoven is fairly improvisatory, not least in his breathtaking cadenzas, and his playing had the effect of making the music come alive before my ears, as if it were being created there and then for the very first time. It’s a thrilling experience, and if there were times when his improvisations made it a little difficult for the orchestra to know when to come in, this was a price worth paying for an outstanding take on this piece.

He also restored a sense of wonder to Schubert’s youthful Third Symphony, a work of real scale and stature in his hands. The opening movement was played with a Beethovenian sense of scale, from the awesome adagio introduction to the thrilling allegro, turning a youthful work into a substantial symphonic argument. There may have been less substance to the other movements, but Levin reminds his audience that this is a symphony to take seriously.

Meanwhile the rich, full tone of the SCO strings brought Mozart’s early Divertimento to life with a lovely sense of ebb and flow. At first Levin’s direction felt rather heavy for this piece, though he came into his own in the minor key central section of the beautiful slow movement, a moving interlude that already looks forward to the composer’s maturity.

Simon Thompson