One of music’s great polymaths, Robert Levin, performs a specialist programme highlighting Mozart’s improvisatory Preludes, and some of the greatest Sonatas at Adrian Boult Hall at 1.05pm on Tuesday 6 October.
He champions and composes contemporary music, but has also famously reconstructed Mozart choruses from sketches, including the Amen fugue in the Requiem. He has taught at The Curtis Institute, as the Piano Professor in Freiburg 1986-93, as Humanitas Visiting Professor in Cambridge 2012, and is currently Professor of Music Emeritus at Harvard.
The performance is followed by a public masterclass with some of the Conservatoire’s finest young pianists.
Jack Lovell spoke with Robert to find out more ahead of his appearance at the Conservatoire…
You are performing this recital on the fortepiano. Can you tell us a little bit about this instrument? Did you prepare for this performance knowing you will be using the fortepiano, and has that influenced your interpretation?
It is a copy of an instrument made in the workshop of Anton Walter. I did indeed prepare for the recital knowing I would be using a period piano, which decisively influences both technical and artistic approaches to performance and interpretation.
The greater transparency, clearer articulation, equal balance between hands and voices, and the particular colours available on an instrument of Mozart’s time are central to my approach.
You have a long and complex relationship with Mozart, from performing his works to reconstructing choruses and writing about him. What is it about Mozart that excites/interests you so much?
Mozart’s music conveys a sense of perfection and perfect equilibrium between rhetoric, architecture, and expression. He was a master dramatist and his music conveys a vivid sensuality. It is a challenging voyage of discovery to attempt to get inside his thought processes.
How does it feel taking on the responsibility of reconstructing or completing works by Mozart or J.S. Bach for example?
One learns profound humility. To attempt such a completion is to aspire to speak perfectly a foreign language. What is required is both intellect, infinite patience, and a clear sense of the outer limits of one’s abilities.
You are also a conductor. How do you find rehearsing a group of musicians impacts your musical language and approach?
It is a special privilege to convey to the musicians, and through them to the audience, the swirling feelings of joy, terror, and everything in between that the composer’s music expresses.
A hot topic in the UK at the moment is that of music education is schools. How do you feel about the state of music education in the UK, and wider around the world? What do you think we could be doing to improve it?
With the exception of Asia, where the virtues of classical music are part of basic cultural education, we need in the rest of the world to attach greater importance to the teaching of music and the appreciation of its immense expressive power. This power is known by all, but principally through vernacular (popular) music, most of which consists of tunes that are typically 2-5 minutes long. The greater complexity of Western art music is capable of engendering revelatory understanding of human motivations and emotions. Present-day audiences are more likely to gain a sense of these from the cinema than from art music. But surely Beethoven’s masterworks are not less powerful in this regard!
You will be giving a masterclass on Tuesday. What is it about the interaction with younger musicians that you enjoy? Is it just pianists that would benefit from this masterclass?
It is enormously stimulating to encounter younger musicians, responding to their abilities and stimulating them to surpass themselves in their aspirations and achievements—a mixture of the technical, the aesthetic, and the visceral. In master classes I teach not just the musician who is playing, but address myself to all listeners, whether fellow musicians or laypersons.
What was the best masterclass you were ever in as a student? What made it so special?
The master classes of Sir Clifford Curzon at Fontainebleau in 1960 and 1962. They were masterpieces of artistry, pianistic counsel, and wit. Working with Sir Clifford as a 12-year-old was what made me decide to be a pianist.
Robert Levin’s recital programme includes:
Robert Levin fortepiano
Mozart Four Preludes, K.284a
Mozart Sonata in B flat, K.333
Mozart Sonata in E flat, K.282
Mozart Sonata in C, K.330