An Ear for Mozart's Dialect: Improvising with Robert Levin by Bernard D. Sherman

Reprinted from Stagebill, December, 1999. Bernard D. Sherman's articles appear in The New York Times and many other national and international publications; his books include Inside Early Music (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Performing Brahms (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

Photo of Robert Levin by Christian Steiner

[NOTE: The following was written for Stagebill, a concert-program book. It was meant to introduce a concert by Robert Levin with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Roger Norrington, featuring Mozart's Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488. You can find a long, in-depth interview with Robert Levin (with footnotes, no less) in my book Inside Early Music.]


The orchestra's favorite part of a concerto, someone once joked, is the cadenza - the section at the end of a movement when the orchestra stops playing and the soloist is on his own for a minute or two. But some listeners in the audience can't wait for the "real" music to start again, when the orchestra gets back to work.

Why do these listeners get impatient? Perhaps because the cadenza rarely lives up to what it's supposed to be - a fantasy that sounds improvised, with enough of the unexpected to keep you on the edge of your seat. Nowadays, in a Mozart concerto, most pianists play a cadenza that was composed well ahead of time (sometimes by Mozart for a student, sometimes by someone more recent). Too often, it's obvious that everything was planned in advance.

But not when the pianist is Robert Levin. Like Mozart himself in concerts, Levin makes up his own cadenzas on the spot. Hearing him plunge in after the orchestra stops is like watching someone walk a tightrope without a net. In a Levin cadenza, anything can happen.

Not absolutely anything, however: it's all in the style of Mozart. Levin will tell you that learning to improvise cadenzas took him years, because he was developing "an ear for Mozart's dialect." He adds, "It's one thing to be able to describe what makes Mozart's chord changes and melodic contours what they are. But it's another thing to be able to explore around the keyboard while staying within his unique dialect. For Mozart this amazing language was second nature, but for us it will never be that easy."

Levin, like Aaron Copland and Elliot Carter, studied musical composition in Paris with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. He learned to speak fluent Mozart by completing some of the composer's unfinished works, and reconstructing lost ones. (Levin's most famous completion is of the Mozart Requiem; it's recorded on Telarc CD 804 and Hanssler 98.146.) Eventually, Levin says, "I began to make certain kinds of intuitive connections that worked, and that felt like genuine Mozart." From there he went on to improvising in Mozart performances - which means taking big risks "without having the option of canceling a line."

Cadenzas are not the only "extras" Mozart would have improvised when performing his concertos. Mozart also played along during the orchestral parts, and he often filled out the solo part with extra notes or "embellishments." For the concerto Levin will be playing with the Atlanta Symphony, K. 488, one of Mozart's students wrote out a highly embellished version of the slow-movement piano part. While this version doesn't tell us exactly how Mozart played the piece, it does confirm (along with a lot of other evidence) that he wouldn't have simply played the notes as written. Neither will Levin when he performs it. Like Mozart, he will determine the actual notes on the spur of the moment.

When he's not performing, Levin is a professor at Harvard. He and his wife (the pianist Ya-Fei Chuang) live near the campus in a house that contains no fewer than six keyboard instruments - three Steinways, two fortepianos, and a harpsichord. At the Atlanta Symphony concert Levin will play a modern Steinway, as he does in about two-thirds of his Mozart concerto performances. He is renowned for recording the Mozart concertos using period fortepianos, but he had previously played the concertos for years on modern pianos.

How has what he calls his "love affair with period pianos" changed his performances on the Steinway? "To a very significant degree," he says. "It's a constant set of experiments in which I try - depending on the hall, the piano, and the colleagues - to assimilate more (in some cases perhaps a bit less) of the sound quality and articulation of the period piano. I try to exploit them in a modern setting with standard instruments. For example, I think it's fair to say that my Mozart performances have significantly more articulation than most performances by my distinguished colleagues on the Steinway."

Levin thinks this more articulate style of playing does better justice to the mercurial shifts of emotion in Mozart - shifts that smoother performances sometimes suppress. As he puts it, "The question is whether the full range of emotions in Mozart is represented in playing in which the exquisite and tasteful and beautiful are always in the front seat."

The key to doing justice to Mozart's emotional range, he thinks, is not which instrument you use but what you do with it. And there is no better school for what to do than learning the challenging art of improvisation. "To succeed in improvising a Mozart cadenza," he says, "is less significant for how exciting it makes the cadenza than for how exciting it makes the rest of the piece, which is written down."

Why? He explains that learning to speak Mozart's language "gives you an inside view of what is happening in the music, in its dramatic and rhetorical structure. Suddenly performing becomes much more risky. Instead of looking at the decisions of the composers as a set of ineluctable things that were written by destiny, you know that at every point the music could do all sort of other things. None of them may be as good as what actually happens; but understanding them creates the impression that you are at a crossroads - you gulp and blink and suddenly strike out to the left and not the right.

"That is what art is all about," he adds. "If you go to a Shakespeare play and you never have any anguish about what the characters are going to do next, then probably the director and actors have not done a terribly good job. My major joy at having devoted years of my life to making risk part of what I do in Mozart is that people realize that when I play I might do one of a million things."

The A-major concerto gives a particularly clear example. Its first-movement cadenza is unique among those Mozart wrote out, partly because it doesn't quote any major tunes from the movement. This is despite the fact that, as Levin says, "K. 488 has more glorious tunes than any other concerto." In Levin's excellent recording of the work (L'Oiseau-Lyre 452 052-2) his improvised cadenza, unlike the Mozart one, alludes to some of the concerto's themes. But will his cadenza in Atlanta do the same? Not even Levin knows. He - like the rest of us - will find out when the orchestra stops playing.

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