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Pianist Max Levinson (file photo)

During pianist Max Levinson’s appearance at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center, it occurred to me that it’s time I stop being astonished by how really excellent he is.  I first reviewed him in 2010 in four Chopin Ballades and Schumann’s Kreisleriana, then didn’t hear him, I believe, again until his stupendous performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with the Boston Chamber Music Society this past January.  After this Sunday’s concert, in which he both soloed and collaborated with several colleagues, I am determined to try to hear him more often.

Levinson opened exquisitely with the rarely heard Mozart Sonata in E-flat Major, K. 282 (1775), delivering an island of calm amidst the usual breathtaking Rockport scenery. Life felt perfect. The third movement was brilliantly effervescent. This was masterful, beautiful playing, indeed.

The four hands of Max Levinson and Sae Yoon Chon, both of whom had won the prestigious Dublin International Piano Competition,  delivered the heartbreakingly lovely fantasy, in an interpretation as perfect and as beautiful as this summer day. I particularly remember hearing this first in Istvan Szabo’s 2000 film about three generations of Hungarian Jews, named “Sonnenschein”, and then in Symphony Hall with James Levine and Evgeny Kissen in 2005, (later recorded). Levinson  and Choon sounded every bit as good.

According to Michael Beckerman, in the NY Times (2000):

The Schubert Fantasie in F Minor, for Piano Four Hands, D. 940 (1828) is a particularly compelling choice for “Sunshine.” Written at the end of the composer’s life, it is a remarkable piece, which goes against the grain. What begins simply as a kind of Biedermeier serenade turns into a work of great mystery and astonishing profundity, concluding, like Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony, with a double fugue. As Mozart did in his F minor Fantasy for mechanical organ, written 30 years earlier and also arranged for four hands, Schubert takes the genre into uncharted territory. In tone, his fantasy shares something with Mozart’s 40th Symphony, yet the dotted rhythm recalls a march, with aspects simultaneously childlike, military and funereal. The opening is riddled with grace notes, suggesting — appropriately for the film — an exotic, Hungarian Gypsy origin. The phrases are irregular, and the seemingly wistful opening idea is immediately repeated with an unusual insistence. There is something inscrutable about this work.

Tchaikovsky’s majestic (and perhaps overlong) two-movement Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50 (1881-2) received a somewhat mixed performance. Max Levinson was once again, tremendous, yet when called to do so, he could also evoke the majestic, exquisite, and tender. The strings had thousands of notes; the piano part rivals those of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerti for difficulty. In fairness, I must admit that this trio’s world-class cellist, Andés Díaz, has long been a family friend; we admire him deeply. He produces a gorgeous sound, and impeccable intonation, even with his left 2nd finger still recovering from a battle at a local restaurant with a lobster earlier this week.

This was the first time I had a chance to hear Rockport’s director, Barry Shiffman, who seems to be appearing in half of this season’s concerts. In the tradition of many greats (William Primrose, Pinchas Zuckerman, Raphael Hillyer), he bills himself as violinist/violist, but as I have not had a chance to hear him on the viola, it is perhaps unfair to judge him on this wildly notey, virtuoso extravaganza  with which he tasked himself. Why didn’t he assign it to some world-class violinist? To this rough-edged summer festival run-through, the audience responded tepidly.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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