Levin performs Beethoven with both lyricism and fire

Music review

February 27, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Robert Levin, this week's soloist in the Baltimore Symphony's concerts with conductor Mario Venzago, is best known as a brilliant scholar and as a specialist on the fortepiano -- as reproductions of early pianos are called to distinguish them from modern concert grands.

Because early instruments (such as those Levin uses in his distinguished series of recordings of Mozart and Beethoven concertos) would be almost inaudible in Meyerhoff Hall, the pianist performed the Beethoven's B-flat Concerto on a modern Steinway.

It's more accurate to think of Levin as simply a terrific pianist rather than as a specialist. But what he knows about performance style in Beethoven's day -- including embellishments and improvisation -- made what what would have been excellent even better.

With Venzago and the Baltimore Symphony providing a fine accompaniment that paid careful attention to such details as inner voices, Levin played the concerto with a flexibility of line and beauty of sound that revealed tenderness and expressiveness in what I usually consider a cheaply made music-box of a concerto. The slow movement, which flowed naturally and lyrically, suggested unsuspected meditative depths. In his improvised cadenzas, Levin shot off sparks with his daring and volatile playing.

His encore -- the fourth intermezzo of Brahms' opus 76 -- also displayed a wholly convincing subtlety of rhythm, as well as warmth and delicacy of coloring.

The pianist was, of course, ideally matched with a conductor. Venzago's podium manner and musicianship reminds me a little of Yuri Temirkanov's. While less romantic, they share a dangerous, spontaneous quality. One has the feeling that anything can happen, and that -- when it does -- it's likely to be refreshing.

The Swiss conductor gave an evocative reading of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2. The ravishing textures, the molding of phrases and subtle flexibility of his rhythm testified not only to Venzago's feeling for Ravel, but also to the orchestra's responsiveness to him. The same composer's "La Valse," which concluded the concert, was just as impressively shaped and subtly controlled.

The concert began with one of the high-water marks of 1950s serialism, Luigi Nono's "Incontri," made less intimidating because of the conductor's charming and unpretentious prefatory remarks.

Pub Date: 2/27/99

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