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Robert Levin Piano Masterclass
Chaired by Jane Booth Head of Historical Performance*

Guildhall School of Music, 3 October 20011

(Please do click on the links, which are integral to this report)

Robert Levin, expert on all keyboard instruments, is especially known for his championship of the fortepiano for Mozart, which he has recorded extensively.

That his teaching at Guildhall was not to be missed I knew from memories of an OAE seminar on Beethoven and his Pianos at the British Museum - see below** - and a master class at South Bank Centre.

Levin [L in a New York 'competition' - it wasn’t supposed to be a competition, but everyone knew it was] has a lifetime's wealth of keyboard music experience to share and his advice to students is peppered with important generalisations which deserve pondering at length.

Of particular interest to us was one student's work on the Beethoven "Moonlight" sonata, prepared on modern piano and played through on the Steinway, after which Levin persuaded him to experiment on the fortepiano, suggesting that listeners might then feel that they didn't want to hear it other ever again. (Those of us who had recently heard Viviana Sofronitsky's "Moonlight" on fortepiano at Wigmore Hall and on radio would have needed little persuading so...)

Levin's student was asked to try to transfer a comparable effect from the fortepiano onto his preferred modern overstrung instrument, and to ponder the lessons from the subtleties of touch to which he'd been introduced on the fortepiano. That had given a different feeling to the excitements of the tempestuous finale, equally as for the noctournal dreaminess of the first movement. (Levin stressed however that he, being a registered Steinway pianist and owner of four Steinway grands, was not hostile to the playing of early music on modern pianos.)

Sadly, that Moonlighting quarter of an hour was the only use of the fortepiano through the three hour of teaching; rather a waste of the facilities provided?

In every case Levin ran out of time with much still to say; that is all too common in college master classes; a frustration also for listening audiences. Did we, or he, need to give over about three quarters of an hour's precious time for complete performances of sonatas by Beethoven and Schubert? Would those not be better to have been scheduled for recital opportunities at GSMD after the Master's lessons had been absorbed?

Many of us there would have had things we'd want to tell some of the the students after hearing just a couple of pages... And Levin would have begun to focus his thoughts even sooner than that!

This is a common problem with masterclasses; q.v. a salutary session on the Liszt Sonata at RAM, which left Boris Berman only a few minutes teaching time after the student had insisted on playing the whole sonata right through, leaving little possibility to help him.

Another approach, which should always be considered, is exemplified by the Chopin teaching of the great Cyprien Katsaris; do see him on line working at Shanghai with a gifted youngster in English, in Japanese Television’s “NHK Educational” series. We enjoyed particularly sessions on the Fantaisie Impromptu and Chopin's own favourite A minor Valse - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5xwnNilvco.

At GSMD bon mots tumbled from Levin in profusion; a transcript would give food for thought and reflection. He enthused about how Bach "visited all related keys in succession"; Froberger & Byrd were extolled as great and amazing composers; Beethoven & Schubert only marked "articulations which would not be taken for granted by musicians familiar with the conventions of their times"; performances must excite audiences and persuade them to intuitively appreciate underlying structures, etc etc.

My illustration has three "messages":

1. this afternoon deserved a full house rather than about a score of changing listeners, some of them clearly too busy to devote the whole session to what Robert Levin had to offer.
2. a more appropriate subliminal message might have been conveyed if the fortepiano had been placed centre stage?
3. I trust that the microphone in view over the platform was switched on and the whole event was being recorded?

Whatever, I saw no evidence of Levin's pupils of the day having ensured that each had a friend there to record their lessons, with so much to digest in the days and weeks after the class?

The GSM's Concert Hall as set up was an ideal venue for the event; every word came across clearly, right to the back, without strain or needing Levin to make special efforts to ensure audibility (something forgotten in some master classes). The music likewise sounded fine, whether fff on the Steinway or pp on the clavichord.

One looks forward to early future opportunities to attend Robert Levin's teaching, a great privilege for those of us able to stay the course. He would be an ideal candidate for the burgeoning Masterclass Media Foundation's collection of DVDs (some of them filmed at RAM) and a collecton which every college/academy library ought to have.

Peter Grahame Woolf

* Jane Booth has kindly explained that 'One of the thrilling aspects of the day was the large element of staff interest in Bob's classes. We had a 3 hour class on cadenza improvisation in the morning which was not a public event with students of trumpet, piano and cello sharing their concertos and personal cadenzas. The workshop was, as ever, full of lessons about culture, style, packed with repertoire references from so many places - a number of staff managed to take in large chunks of the classes and will use the wisdom in their own teaching in the months to come.'

** - - an OAE seminar on Beethoven and his Pianos, which has continued to colour my reaction to several pianists heard in quick succession in the following week. - - Of central interest was The development of the piano in Beethoven's time, a brilliant exposition by Robert Levin illustrated on two instruments from his own collection.

A tremendous communicator in talk and performance, Levin makes a persuasive case for restored period instruments for the concertos instead of the "9 ft behomoth, black with its lid up, behind which the wind can't hear and participate in dialogue". Those iron framed modern instruments are strung with such tension that "it can take a whole second to develop the side-to-side vibration which gives 'singing tone' ".

Early pianos, with parallel strings and small hammers set up 'backwards' are by contrast more focused and instantly responsive. He illustrated how Beethoven's music was 'uncannily written for those instruments', exploiting all their characteristics in ways no one could imagine. He described the 'explosive development of pianos in Beethoven's lifetime' and how he was always seeking more and exploiting given instruments to their limit, taking command of the entire range of his pianos, wanting ever more range and power, with 'a visionary sense of sound despite his deafness'.

After lunch Levin rehearsed and performed Beethoven's piano/wind quintet on a restored Viennese instrument from 1802, with members of OAE all playing early instruments, their balance in this chamber grouping being acceptable. However, as Bayan Northcott writes, reviewing Levin's account of two Beethoven concertos at QEH, there remains "the need to adjust to the modest volume of the fortepiano relative to the weight of even a period-instrument orchestra". In broadcasts and recordings that necessary adjustment can falsify the actual balance as experienced live; the debate and arguments will continue for ever!