Impish Levin Infects Scottish Chamber Musicians

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Reicha, Mozart, Schubert: Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robert Levin (piano/director), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 09.05.2013 (SRT)

Reicha: Overture in D
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 16
Schubert: Symphony No. 2

If you’ve never come across Anton Reicha before then you’re in good company. He was a contemporary of Beethoven and he knew that composer well from the time they played together in the theatre orchestra in Bonn. He was extremely prolific and much admired by Berlioz in his time, and his Overture in D is full of the sparkle of late classicism, providing a good platform for Robert Levin to showcase the outstandingly clear, bright sound that he can get out of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s musicians. The most remarkable thing about the piece, however, is that, once its slow introduction has subsided, the whole thing is in 5/4 time. It’s not immediately easy for the ear to pick up on it, though the jaunty rhythm gives the work a quirky, off-centre quality that works very well. It’s also remarkably innovative, a bit like Robert Levin himself.

I’ve written before in these pages about how dazzling a concerto performance from Levin can be, particularly the way his improvisations and accompaniments seem to be creating the music fresh before our ears. The same was true in his take on Mozart tonight, but the thing that struck me most of all was the sense of almost childish delight with which he makes music. This impish joy in what he does infects the rest of the sound because his is the joy of creation as well as of discovery, cadenzas appearing under his fingers as if by magic. It also infected the rest of the orchestra, who responded to the outer movements with plenty of martial swagger, including a delightful shift into triple time with the finale’s coda. The real heart of the work, however, came in the central section of the slow movement. This surprisingly serious minor key interlude was played with great depth of feeling without losing its delicacy of touch, and operated as the centre of the work in the midst of all its great good humour.

Levin’s sense of delight also came through in his conducting of Schubert’s effervescent second symphony. There was, again, a joy in the way he shaped every phrase, and I loved the way he often threw his arms aloft, as if to put an exclamation mark over a particular passage. The orchestra responded with a supremely beautiful introduction and an allegro whose strings positively bristled with good humour, and I especially loved the Andante, a gorgeous set of variations with particularly outstanding wind sound. Levin is a magician on both the keyboard and podium, and this concert was a magical way to end the SCO’s 2013-14 season.

Full details of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 2013-14 season are available here.

Simon Thompson