Robert Levin, John Harbison, and friends presented to the public a landmark of their longstanding Mozart recovery project: three unfinished works newly completed by Levin and performed under the auspices of Harbison’s Token Creek Festival. The pieces are charming and full of flair, and the process (which they discussed with BMInt here) is fascinating. It’s not often that the connections between scholarship, theory, and performance manifest themselves in such an intricate and self-evident manner. The performances came off with varying degrees of success, albeit satisfying and thought-provoking for the large audience that filled much of MIT’s Kresge Auditorium last Saturday evening.
To start with the evening’s best and last: Levin’s performance of the “Coronation” Piano Concerto in D Major, K. 537, which he presented with a chamber accompaniment of two violins (Heidi Braun-Hill and Rose Mary Harbison), viola (John Harbison), cello (Rhonda Rider), and bass (Elizabeth Foulser), left me with no doubt that this is the way Mozart is meant to be played. Levin is the embodiment of the aforementioned trio of scholarship, theory, and performance, and he did not disappoint. Seating himself at the piano with, appropriately, what looked like a handful of loose-leaf binder notes (this alone would have induced vicarious nerves in any other situation), he proceeded to engage with the music, piano, and fellow musicians in a thoroughly relaxed and spontaneous manner. Earlier, discussing the 60 percent of the piano’s left hand that Mozart did not notate (and that was filled in, upon his death, by someone apparently without access to the harmonic structure indicated in the orchestral score), Levin informed the audience that he improvises the missing left hand. However it was done, the integration was seamless. I thought the seating arrangement odd at first, with Levin and the piano placed behind the “orchestra;” however, when he emerged after the tutti exposition my doubts were dispelled. One could tell that he performed not only from heart and instinct but from the brain, using rubato, dynamics and phrasing to demonstrate his deep understanding of every note’s function in the larger picture of harmony and structure. From the robust surprise of a sudden minor turn after the final cadence of the exposition, to the thoughtful dialogue between left and right hand in the Larghetto, to the dashing ornaments supplementing the third movement’s rondo theme, Levin proved himself to be a musician fully integrated with the music he was presenting. He had no problem switching between roles of soloist and tutti member, either, supporting the string ensemble and scampering above and around them as needed. Knowing where a piece is going and how it will get there, what surprises it will tug along its outwardly polished way, and then presenting both the bedrock of the music’s essence and the suppleness of its organic nature: that is the definition of purposeful performance.
The second selection, the Piano Trio K. 442, thrown together after Mozart’s death by his contemporary, Maximilian Stadler, out of fragments from three separate piano trio movements, brought Levin the chance to sparkle in a more subdued manner, alternating filigree with respectably solid chamber music ensemble work. Rider, though sadly underutilized on the frequently sustaining cello part, brought energy to every note and pizzazz to her few assertive runs and arpeggios. The three players’ sounds (with Ms. Harbison on violin), though not always blending, complemented each other nicely and gave an overall impression of fullness — not a small task for a chamber group in the lecture-hall-like atmosphere of Kresge. Although the three movements (in three different keys) consist of a first movement, finale, and first movement respectively, I experience no sense of disjointedness, as each movement had its unique charms. The second movement, an erstwhile finale bearing the unusual marking “Tempo di Menuetto,” was especially charming and quirky, with a lilting main theme that burst forth in mischievous exclamation mid-phrase, precipitous mini-cadenzas for piano and violin, and lovely pedal tones from the cello as it wound to a close. The third movement was light and sparkling enough, with a horn-call theme in the piano, to balance the second movement nicely and bring the piece to a jaunty close.
The opening portion of the concert consisted of the multi-movement Divertimento in B-flat Major for Horns and Strings, K. 287 (the “Lodron” Serenade No. 2). Mozart began writing this piece, so the story goes, as a defiant showcase for his own violin virtuosity after a snide missive from his father pointed out his unwillingness to maintain the practice necessary for upkeep as one of Europe’s prime violin virtuosi (Mozart subsequently decided in favor of the viola as his primary stringed instrument). Consequently, the piece is a circus for the first violin, and Ms. Harbison, unfortunately, was not the woman for the job. Although she later delivered satisfying performances within the solidity of the piano trio and back-up quintet, she was clearly out of her element both as leader of the Divertimento’s awkwardly-sized ensemble and as soloist maintaining the brunt of the piece’s melodic material and direction. Her body language demonstrated neither leadership nor engagement (in contrast to the suppleness of the rest of the string players), her intonation grew more and more uneven the higher into the register she reached, and many of her bowing choices, such as vigorous whole-bow sweeps at the top of stratospheric runs, seemed questionable.
Soloistic martyrdom aside, the scoring of the piece contained inherent pitfalls, some of which could be turned to novel advantage and some of which remained merely awkward. The positioning of the string quartet (cello replaced by bass) on two sides of the group, separated by the often-resting horns, created the potential for playful back-and-forth among the inner voices, which sometimes sent their interjections ricocheting smartly across the spatial divide and sometimes slid out of focus. The most unwieldy, least tidy, but also most fun movement was the final Andante-Allegro molto, a scrambling rondo theme elongated by the viola and second violin, bustling activity bracketed by somewhat odd recitative-style episodes for the first violin.
In terms of instrumentation, bassist Foulser was highlighted merely by the register divide between her bass and the rest of the ensemble; however, this quirk worked in the piece’s favor, drawing attention to her rich yet clear sound and impressive fingerwork in fast passages. The horns, Richard Menaul and Frederick Aldrich, had by far the hardest ensemble job, required to merge their non-melodic perfect intervals with the rest of the texture in a warm, balanced, tastefully understated, pitch-perfect way, a job at which they succeeded admirably. My companion, knowledgeable about such things, pointed out that the task of creating a clean line out of hunting-horn-style intervals is even harder on the modern valved horn with its built-in chromaticism than on the natural horn for which the parts were written.
In any case, one thing that keeps Mozart fresh and so alluring is that certain intangible je ne sais quoi needed to pull off a successful performance, a trait that Levin and Co. undoubtedly recognize as one of the countless mysterious and not-so-mysterious ingredients that make Mozart a genius. The Mozart Marathon evening was fulfilling in its proof of intellectually curious collaboration between friends and colleagues, even if the performances themselves did not always reach the level of brilliance. In the brief discussion preceding the Piano Trio, Levin spoke of the famous 18th-century string quartet consisting of Haydn, Dittersdorf, Mozart, and Vanhal, and the audience murmured their agreement to his assertion that, despite accounts that they were perhaps not the greatest players to be heard, any of us would certainly jump at the chance to be a fly on the wall at their rehearsals.
Zoe Kemmerling is a recent graduate of the Boston Conservatory and a freelance violist, Baroque violinist, writer, and string instructor. She is also an intern for BMInt.