14 March 2011

Robert Levin: Meta-Mozart and Mozart’s Own Experimentalism/Eclecticism

Robert Levin

M   olding the ‘clay’, getting your fingers ‘wet’: discovering how Mozart thought, how he might have written things, how he went about doing what he did. This is inevitably humbling—this improvising cadenzas and whole movements that are missing from his works. But it also enables you to more accurately perform and understand the parts that are not missing; to have a better sense that there are [performance] ‘options’ from which to choose.”
  — Robert Levin, pianist.
I s it ‘creation’ or is it imitation? Honestly, it is both!
  • Mozart – Prelude and Fugue in C, K. 394 (4.0 min; 3.5 min)
  • Mozart – “Adagio variee” K3 Anh. 206a = K6 Anh. A 65 (1.5 min for each of 4)
  • Mozart – Suite “In the style of Handel”, K. 399 [Sarabande completed by R. Levin] (3.5 min; 3.5 min; 2.2 min; 4.3 min; 3.5 min)
  • Mozart – Piano Sonata No. 15 in F, K. 533/494 (26.5 min)
W   hat you hear in this Adagio, K. Anh. A65, are two parts, A and B, composed by Mozart. And for each of these, I have deconstructed them, stripped them down, and created versions, A’ and B’, removing the decorations… to show what might have been.”
  — Robert Levin, pianist.
I n Levin’s improvised material in last evening’s MainlyMozart program in San Diego we get a sense of genuine authenticity in terms of motivic elements, harmonic progressions, modulations, durations that each chord/key prevails until a change is introduced, and so on. Really convincing and wonderful. You don’t necessarily have to have comprehensive (or even ‘adequate’) explanations for the formal structure of Mozart’s music to produce new compositions (or, as Levin is famous for doing, completions of Mozart’s unfinished ones) that have tremendous verisimilitude.

T here is a lot of latitude for interpretation in these pieces—including Levin’s slow, dilated accounts of the first two movements of Sonata in F, K. 533. For example, Schiff, Eschenbach, Uchida, and others turn in Allegro times ranging between 7 min and 9 min, compared to Levin’s 11 min for the Allegro last night. Others’ performances of the Andante range between about 6 min and 10 min, with Levin’s account close to 9 min. And the Rondo Allegretto of this Sonata is, in others’ hands, incredibly varied, ranging from as short as 6 min to 8 min or more; Levin’s tendency toward hyper-masculine emphasis leads him to 6 min 20 seconds with a flourish.
I ’m studying—we all should be studying, like students learning a new language. People study French, German, Italian, Chinese… eventually they become fluent speakers, if they work hard at it. Well, why not think of Mozart as a language, one that must be learned, in a conversational way? I am studying Mozart! I’m just trying to improve my diction—trying to get my ‘accent’ better.”
  — Robert Levin, pianist.
L evin’s remarks remind me of David Cope, composer and professor at UC Santa Cruz, who 20+ years ago created Emmy, a LISP-based software application that produced scores in the style of classical composers. Some time ago Cope decided to sunset Emmy. It has been superceded by a new package, called Emily Howell, another in his suite of computer models of musical creativity.

L iterary theorist Frederic Jameson considers the ‘effacement’ of a personal style and its replacement by ‘pastiche’—not parody as in Bruce Adolphe’s comedic and educational routines but the borrowing and recoding of historical idioms, adopting jargon popularized by others, and repurposing ornaments and decorations that previously held different meanings—as fundamental elements of post-modernism. It is a “celebration of surfaces, which denies the hermeneutics of depth” (Jameson, pp. 64-5.) It’s like speech in a dead language, but speech that is devoid of parody’s ulterior, satiric motives. [Satie and Debussy co-opted and experimented with other styles and did pastiches. Nyman’s book covers some of this history of ‘experimental’ music.]

L evin marveled aloud about the brevity of the fragments that were his starting-materials… conjured the notion of Mozart as a dilettante... abandoning a Gigue in 5 bars; the Sarabande that Levin completed, abandoned by Mozart in 4 bars, just the merest sketch now extant; Mozart becoming very quickly disinterested in the art of fugue, having been goaded into attempting it by his wife.

B ut these idiosyncrasies and peccadillos of Mozart’s become in Levin’s hands a wonderful asset—they serve as a pretext for better understanding the man and the music, or, as many have noted, reviving the art of improvisation and honoring ‘freshness’ and novelty in classical music performance.

W   hat has happened in the last generation or so is that objects—musical scores—have become ‘sacred’. People focus far too much on adhering literally to the notes that are written on the page. It is far better, I believe, to have a sense of responsibility to create something new in performing each work—it needs always to be ‘dangerous’.”
  — Robert Levin, pianist.
R obert Levin studied piano with Louis Martin in New York City, and composition there with Stefan Wolpe. He was invited to study with Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France, and in Paris while still a teenager. He studied composition with Leon Kirchner, and piano with Clifford Curzon, Robert and Jean Casadesus, and Alice Gaultier-Léon. He was appointed head of music theory at the Curtis Institute in 1968, on the recommendation of Rudolf Serkin. Levin’s highly praised Mozart fortepiano concerto series, with Christopher Hogwood and The Academy of Ancient Music, was released in 1994 on the L’oiseau-Lyre label. Levin has been commended especially for his improvised cadenzas, a once-popular performance practice that some have credited him with restoring to tradition. His version of Mozart’s Requiem was premiered in 1991 in Stuttgart at the European Music Festival, conducted by Helmuth Rilling. Since 1993, Levin has been a professor at Harvard, where he serves as a Dwight P. Robinson Jr. Professor of Music Performance & Analysis and Professor of the Humanities.

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