Robert Levin at Wigmore Hall's
Wigmore Hall 28 January 2007
Echoes of that uneasy relationship resurfaced at Wigmore Hall's badly mis-titled Steven Isserlis Beethoven Day. And what a bizarre concept was this entertainment!
Some of us, deeming the full diet indigestible, came to sample the offerings mainly because Steven Isserlis's partner was to be the renowned fortepianist Robert Levin. Inexcusably he had not rated equal billing by Wigmore Hall.
Levin's handsome modern copy of a historical instrument was not identified with even a short note, let alone a photograph as one of six illustrations in the text provided. Nowhere in the lavish and costly programme book was the splendid instrument mentioned, let alone described with details of its maker and provenance.
Nor did the nine newly written full pages about "Beethoven and the Cello" (©2007 Misha Donat) have anything to say about the combination beyond that "even on the keyboard instruments of Beethoven's day the increased power of the piano over the harpsichord posed problems of balance and blend between the two instruments"; pre-echoes of the cellist who complained of Gerald Moore's best efforts. [Maybe he didn't know a fortepiano was to be used? YC]
For reviewers, the chief interest of going to hear this duo live was to find out how Levin's instrument blended and balanced with Stephen Isserlis' gut strings. The answer, to anticipate what else I have to go on to say, is that it was ideal, and the first few minutes of Op 5/1 was a joy, as was Op 69 later. That is critical information, because there is no way listening to broadcasts or recordings to know whether the balance has been adjusted by engineers.
Only at the beginning did we learn that in the afternoon session there were to be intervals of half an hour plus a "dinner interval" of an hour or so; and a change of order so that my favourite sonata (Op 102/1) would be after the latter (we had already decided not to stay for Op 102/2 - I have problems with its strenuous finale, as with that of Brahms No 2, less listener friendly than its earlier companion).
We were apprehensive about the afternoon beginning with the two lengthy and all too similar early sonatas back to back, a sequence which normally would never be contemplated by concert planners. Nor were we reassured when it became clear that we were to be given all repeats...
During interval conversation I met several who questioned the chronological order; and I thought, why not try anti-chronological? (I still quite like sitting with my back to the front of the train and seeing where you had come from; in youth we had been recommended to do so, something to do with smoke from the engine)...
And subversive thoughts multiplied. Surely some exchanges would have made for better concerts through the long day? Why not have given one of the Op 5s in the morning, instead of all three early sets of variations; and exchanged the only real novelty (the cello arrangement of the horn quintet) plus one of those variations sets to give variety to the afternoon sequence?
Would that have ruined the lessons of a progress through time? Does anyone play CDs of an integrale straight through; surely not?
There is also the "marathon" question. An unique if futile achievement (maybe perhaps a record?) for the particular peformers to have done the whole oeuvre in one day? And for the audience a sense of completeness?
Disappointing at the end, then, to be told by a young cellist of repute that it had been silly to use that fortepiano, "Beethoven would rather have had a modern piano - - - etc".
A lost opportunity for a mixed audience to confront some of the HIP (historically informed performance) issues in the context of familiar music... If any of them read Musical Pointers, I hope they may chance upon the extensive coverage of that debate in our Articles section, with many CD reviews of performances on early pianos, and notably the report on fortepianist Malcolm Bilson's masterclass DVD Knowing the Score by Elena Vorotko of the early pianos collection at RAM.
And, to compound the all-round stress of the exercise, it was being recorded too! Was that intended for broadcast or for commercial release, we weren't told? From an audience point of view, either seemed fraught. Disturbing knocking sounds emanating intermittently from the fortepiano would be intolerable on air. And I thought that Levin's fortepiano was taking punishment which affected the tuning of some strings. So, either way, a lot of patching might be needed, if it was to emerge as "live" from Wigmore Hall...
This is not a simple, jaundiced critique of the performances; they were fine and the partnership a fruitful one, even though publicised so inappropriately. Ideally Levin and Isserlis should follow yesterday's event by scheduling some three days or so for a studio recording; surprisingly, Isserlis' extensive discography does not feature Beethoven! Meanwhile, try Bylsma (baroque cello) with fortepiano on Nonesuch.
Peter Grahame Woolf
Read also Stephen Isserlis on relearning the Beethoven sonats,
Photo Credit: Tom Miller