A star in his own time -- maybe

Music: What's been heard of pianist Max Levinson is good, and he may be ready to burst onto the scene. Judge for yourself at the Kennedy Center Sept. 25.

September 14, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It's part of a music critic's job to alert audiences to the appearance of new talents.

This isn't important when an extraordinary new talent is swept along by word-of-mouth, debut recordings on important labels or -- and sometimes it's justified -- by manufactured public relations. All of these circumstances surrounded the first appearances of such artists as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Evgeny Kissin and violinist Hilary Hahn. While they were still in their teens, we knew how good they were supposed to be.

Sadly, such stories are rarely the case.

Even the greatest "overnight sensation" in classical music in the last 50 years -- the emergence of pianist Van Cliburn after his victory in the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition -- wasn't what it appeared. Cliburn had won the prestigious, but much less publicized, Leventritt Competition four years earlier and, as a consequence, had made a debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1955. But Cliburn's extraordinary talents were ignored, his concert dates shriveled and his career withered. When he was persuaded to go to Moscow in 1958 by his teacher, Rosina Lhevinne, he was about to pass from obscurity into oblivion.

All of this comes to mind because of Max Levinson's piano recital Sept. 25, under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society, at the Terrace Theater in the Kennedy Center. Levinson is a recent graduate of Harvard College whose musical education took place outside hothouse breeding grounds such as New York's Juilliard School.

I have never heard him in concert, but listeners I respect -- such as Boston Globe music critic Richard Dyer -- think he's one of the extraordinary talents of his generation.

I have heard Levinson's two CDs -- the most recent is an all-Bartok disc -- and on those recordings, he impresses me much the way that Murray Perahia and Richard Goode did more than 30 years ago. Like those players, he is not a pianistic autocrat. He eschews the dynamism of the resonant bass and opts for something more subtle, cleaner and purer, while maintaining iron discipline and tonal variety.

His recorded performances of Schumann and Brahms are exquisite and direct; his ear for sonorities and his immaculate technical command contribute to interpretations of Bartok with a depth of understanding that others lack; and his pure and luminous textures suggest that he will be an outstanding interpreter of Mozart and Chopin.

Given hard work and good luck, Max Levinson may become as well-known as Goode or Perahia. But it's equally possible that you may never hear of him again. Forewarned is forearmed. Tickets for Levinson's recital are $21 and are available from the Washington Performing Arts Society (202-833-9800).

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