Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Rondo in A minor; Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor; Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K.467

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Robert Levin

Queen Elizabeth Hall 19 February 2008

Life after Barenboim goes on! This was a revelatory evening of Mozart at the fortepiano. After a rather raucous Der Schauspieldirektor overture (Kati Debretzeni standing to directing from her violin) Levin cleverly brought our ears down to scale with a compelling account of the solo Rondo in A minor, silencing the capacity audience to rapt attention. He then conducted with shoulders and head the D minor concerto from the keyboard, leaving it unclear why Kati Debretzeni was sitting on a raised podium, ostensibly directing the proceedings - I guess her main contribution was during preparation for the concert.

For listeners in the QEH the perspective was completely different from a previous experience. Far from the piano sounding too quiet (as once it did at St John Smith Square), a regular hazard, it was somehow absorbed into the whole, with flights of virtuosity thrown off as if the composer himself was almost improvising and relishing in his skill, but without drawing attention to it. Never was the orchestra felt to be accompanying the soloist. We were riveted and totally persuaded that this was how it was meant to be. The more extrovert C major concerto came across as significantly different. Here the solo virtuosity was less often subsumed within the (lighter) orchestral texture, and Levin did "show of" with zest and to our delight.

The whole phenomenon of the Orchestra of Enlightenment's unique success was epitomised in this concert. A capacity audience of people, not young, seemed to have taken HIP in their stride, without, I'd guess, being partisan devotees of early instruments. The use of fortepiaos as against Steinways is still divisive, and the (undated) programme notes of David Cairns seemed to come from another world of romantic excess, not really relating to the essentials of this concert. Better for this audience (most of whom will have known those concertos) to have had a note from Robert Levin himself?

Neither Cairns, nor anyone else involved in the lavish costly programme, identified Levin's instrument* or writes about it; instead two pages are devoted to asterisked explanations (e.g. that fortissimo means "very loudly") and a dozen of them to advertising!

And the significance of the series cover illustration above boggles my mind...

This exceptional concert will be broadcast on R 3 Friday 22 February 2008**, and available on line thereafter at Listen Again for a further 7 days; it will be of great interest to hear whether the balance as in the hall is preserved.

Peter Grahame Woolf

*See also Malcolm Bilson's well balanced and highly recommended recording of Mozart Piano Concertos with Robert Levin duetting in the 2-Piano Concerto (I am easily inclined to mix up those two close colleagues, who have both made enormous contributions to the general acceptance of the fortepiano). The Mozart Double Concerto was featured in OAE's 21st Birthday Concert at RFH, on which occasion I also complained that the programme failed to tell us anything about the several fortepianos on stage. PGW

**The balance on the R3 broadcast transmission was well managed, but somehow the excitement of the live situation was hard to recapture on air. But attendance at Bilson's Master Class brought another dimension into the whole event.

Robert Levin's Master Classs (with Catherine Mackintosh)
Purcell Room, 23 February

This generous all day event was attended to near capacity by an audience of OAE loyalists and Members of the Friends for a two and a half hours over-running morning session and a delayed start for the two hour session which we attended in the afternoon.

That was divided into two very different halves. There was, regrettably, no programmeor hand-out and I did not take down the name of the early keyboard student guinea-pig, whose hour was taken up mostly by Robert Levin himself in virtuoso spoken performance.

Levin was larger than life discussing Mozart and his cultural background as demonstrating on the keyboard of the - as I found out by enquiring afterwards - Walter/Adlam fortepiano. That is a large copy instrument whose sound filled the small hall (he told us that Mozart's concerts were never given before audiences numbering more than those at the PR today). [In truth, the Purcell Room is far more suitable for fortepiano recitals than the usual piano recitals on the Steinway, which needs careful taming if it is not to overwhelm the audience.]

Levin's expansive metaphors flourished and solid information was imparted generously amongst wide ranging but pertinent asides. The student was, in truth, nowhere; he was told to play with more fire and commitment, to observe all Mozart's markings (ignoring later ones by reviled Editors !) and encouraged to improvise too, as was customary in the 18th C; above all to "go for it" to move and excite the audience, and forget the elegant "long line' that used to be favoured.

The second hour was a double act with famous baroque violinist Catherine Mackintosh who pretended to fear that she would not get a word in edgeways, but was not to be outdone.

This was a genuine lesson which taught the Swiss violinist (Lisa, on the OAE "Experience" scheme) a great deal about the first movement of the chosen Violin Sonata, "the one all violinists want to play". Here we had phrases and even individual notes shaped and coloured with ever more expressiveness, and we all learnt what a difference a longer baroque bow made and how to use it. This emphasis on detail opened our ears and, for ourselves, it is always better in master classes when we feel ourselves eaves-droppers in a genuine lesson. But the whole thing made for a marvellously entertaining and educational afternoon, one that would lend itself ideally to recreating on DVD. We all left with a little more knowledge and our ears sharpened. PGW

Illustration: Mozart's fortepiano