Cambridge-based pianists and teachers Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang were guests this past week at the Oregon Bach Festival, the 40th annual year of this summer series in Eugene, Oregon, under the overall musical direction of Helmuth Rilling. Levin, Dwight P. Robinson Jr. Professor of the Humanities at Harvard. has been a regular visitor, often giving talks for the afternoon educational Discovery Series and playing harpsichord, fortepiano, as well as modern piano recitals. Chuang is on the faculty of Boston Conservatory and conducts master classes throughout Asia, Europe, and the United States.
Levin produced a torrent of music and thought, starting with his appearance on the Bach/Brahms program at the acoustically wonderful Beall Hall at the University’s School of Music, playing with Chuang several of Brahms’ Hungarian dances and the Liebeslieder waltzes with a sub-set of the Festival’s professional chorus. (This program received rave reviews, but this reviewer was not able to attend.) Levin’s Hinckle Lecture at noon on Wednesday, June 30, was a typically brilliant Levin tour de force on the topic of Bach and religion, in which he made a brief tour of Bach’s childhood introduction to the organ, his place in the entire course of music history, the Bach family, the significance of keys, and Bach’s reputation and religious beliefs—all in the space of about 50 minutes. That evening, he substituted for the ailing Jeffrey Kahane in accompanying baritone Thomas Quasthoff in the Schubert song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin. With scarcely 10 hours’ warning, never having played the cycle, Levin played both flawlessly and sensitively, keeping pace with Quasthoff’s nuanced and moving performance of the songs. Because the concert was in the over-large (but completely packed) Silva hall of the Hult Center, which seats 2,200 people, the acoustics were not what one would wish for such a concert—but the performers did not try to overplay the dynamics, requiring instead that the audience listen with special attention to the exquisite pianissimo passages, particularly telling in the last mult-strophe song, the brook’s lullaby for the suicidal miller.
Thursday, July 1, Levin and Chuang performed their scheduled two-piano recital at Beall Hall, using matched Fazoli pianos donated by a piano company in Utah for the occasion. They opened with the rarely-heard Schumann Andante and Variations in B-flat Major for horn, two cellos, and two pianos, composed during his “chamber music year” of 1843, replete with a reference to one of his most beloved songs, “Seit ich ihn gesehn,” from the Frauenliebe und Leben cycle. Ya-Fei Chuang continued with a masterful rendition of Schumann’s Carnaval, showing complete confidence as she captured the many moods of this quixotic score. If at times her fast tempi were a bit too fast and her slow tempi (particularly in “Eusebius”) threatened to lose the thread, the coherence and brilliance of the whole were well captured. This concert concluded with the Brahms Sonata in F Minor for two pianos, Op. 34b, really a draft of his better-known piano quintet, Op. 34, but one that he thought enough of to publish as a two-piano work. Here the close ensemble work of the duo was particularly noticeable, as they traded phrases, played perfectly in unison, and seemed to speak and feel as one. Chuang has a delicacy of phrasing and dynamics that is different from Levin’s more passionate, forthright statements, but the contrast worked, as phrases were not simply repeated, but re-expressed.
The final appearances of Levin and Chuang were at the gala 40th anniversary concert on Saturday, July 3, held once again to an almost full house at the Hult Center. The total program was a hodge-podge of excerpts from some of the repertoire played in this and past years, held together with video clips that related some of the history of the festival. But Levin and Chuang played one entire piece—the brilliant, half-ironic, half sentimental Poulenc Concerto in D Minor for two pianos, and Levin brought the whole show to a close with a breathtaking rendition of the piano solo in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia, backed by the entire orchestra, six soloists, and a chorus of over 100 voices (including the festival’s youth choir), all directed by Rilling. The Beethoven itself is a mixture of compositional styles, part rough draft for the 9th symphony that was to come some 20 years later (the themes of both are close in contour), and part pure bombast, as in “The Battle Symphony.” To say that it is not his best work is an understatement, but the performance of it was first-rate and it brought the gala evening to an appropriately jubilant close.