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Great and Imperial Classicists Cleaned


Robert Levin

If plopped in Symphony Hall in a couple of weeks, would Schubert and Beethoven relish the Staubsaugering of two centuries of dust the from their Great Symphony and Emperor Concerto? BMInt’s own brilliant advisor the virtuoso pianist Robert Levin, with dynamic conductor Richard Egarr and the H+H Orchestra, will be cleaning up these masterpieces for rendition on instruments similar to those the composers knew, with the result that, in publicist-speak, these works will sound utterly fresh while maintaining their treasured grandeur and poetry.

Coming to Symphony Hall on Friday Nov. 9 at 7:30pm and Sunday Nov. 11 at 3pm; tickets HERE.

BMInt asked Egarr to give some thoughts on the Schubert and Levin to answer questions about the Beethoven.

Egarr: Schubert—what an extraordinary composer: Classical yet Romantic, intimate yet infinite. His Great symphony was considered unplayable because of its gigantic scope and difficulty, musical and technical, yet it has intrigued musicians since its creation, 1825-’27.

In some ways it remains one of the great challenges for any orchestra and conductor, who have to deliver a perfectly formed classical symphony which paints on an enormous canvas. No other composer until Bruckner demands such qualities. Indeed, many of Schubert’s compositional processes directly point toward Bruckner’s music. I am thrilled to be making this musical journey with Schubert and H+H.

BMInt: As an artist who plays music of every period on instruments ancient and modern, what do you say to the assertion that the upcoming concert will be removing dusty accretions from the Emperor and Schubert’s Great Symphony to reveal anew their “grandeur and poetry”?

Levin: Hearing the Emperor concerto on period instruments transforms the balance of forces. On standard instruments the piano enters a confrontation with the entire orchestra more or less on equal terms, due to the thicker strings, much higher string tension, and overstringing (invented by Steinway). On period instruments the challenge is far less balanced, making the hubris of the solo instrument acoustically more heroic, to the occasional point of foolhardiness in the face of its lower decibels.

The evolution of instruments in the 19th century favored sustaining power and technical reliability, whereas period instruments have more distinct flavors. Listening to standard repertoire with the earlier instruments takes us back to the world in which the composers created their music.

We know that the modern grand can fill Symphony Hall with a sustaining plethora of colors over a wide dynamic range. Tell us about the instrument you will be playing and what we should strain to hear.

The solo instrument is an original 6½-octave grand built by Conrad Graf in Vienna around 1830, expertly restored by Edwin Beunk and Johan Wennink. This type of instrument was prized both by Beethoven and by Schubert, and served Mendelssohn and Schumann well. When Chopin came to Vienna to perform, he used a Graf and liked it very much. It has surprising power but also ethereal delicacy, as in addition to the shifting soft pedal it has a moderator, in effect a mute that interposes a layer of felt between the strings and the hammers that strike them.

During a recent recital of Schubert sonatas on a modern piano, I was struck that the performance was almost too artistic, what with vaporous diminuendos and decrescendos with and without ritards, repeated notes each with a difference and destination, and breathtaking rubatos and Luftpausen. Can there be too much poetry in the Emperor?

The personalities of Beethoven and Schubert are quite different, notwithstanding the considerable influence that Beethoven wielded over the younger composer. Schubert frequently calls for tempo inflections and his dynamic range frequently extends from fff to ppp—the latter obtainable with the moderator. The fervor of Beethoven’s Emperor—its heroic style—is less dependent on tempo inflections for its affect, but no music should be performed metronomically.

Performance is akin to storytelling, and the challenge is to fit the rhetorical style to the personality depicted in the music.

A pianist friend once told a student in a masterclass that in Beethoven “every note is important.” Is that truer of Beethoven than other composers? I think he was getting at some blurring of accompanimental figures.

The whole is more than the sum of its parts. It is fine to assert that every note is important, but if some notes are not more crucial than others, the message is obscured by the plethora of tones. One plays all of the notes, lovingly and passionately, but one performs the critical ones, leaving the others in a network of hierarchical relationships.

What about cadenzas in this Emperor?

Beethoven originally intended one in the first movement, and sets it up with both orchestra and soloist; but when it became clear to him that his deafness would preclude his being able to perform the piece himself (he could play his part notwithstanding, but would not be able to be certain of coordinating with the orchestra), he evidently decided that if he could not improvise a cadenza, no one would be allowed to do so. At the point where the improvisation should begin, Beethoven writes into the manuscript, “Do not make a cadenza, but play immediately that that follows.” Note that he says “make” a cadenza, not “play” one—in other words, he is speaking of improvisation, not a prepared cadenza. Virtuosi of that era are unlikely to have written out a cadenza—virtually all of them improvised.

Your recording with Gardiner and the Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique, which H+H excerpts, gives yet another amazing example of what you and he can do with the classics. What of you and Egarr?

Richard and I have collaborated a number of times, most recently with the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto at H+H. He is a superb musician, full of knowledge, flair, and warmth. I have the greatest admiration for him and am delighted to perform with him once again.

Are there many wrong ways to play Beethoven?

Right and wrong are not useful terms in art. The most convincing interpretations will come from an approach that emanates from the interior of the utterance rather than concentrating on the surface. To perform is to act—in both cases the audience should feel that the message is spontaneous and without artifice.


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