Wesley Horner: Can you talk to us, Robert Levin, first of all, about the instrument you’re going to be playing on, and how it’s different than the big black Steinway, and about this particular pianoforte, a very special instrument?
Robert Levin: The piano on which I am performing here in Salzburg was built by Anton Walter, who is one of the major builders in Vienna at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. We believe that this is the piano that belonged to Mozart, and therefore it is the piano on which all of his mature works in Vienna were performed. And to sit down at the piano like that, and look at the little concavities of the keys, and think of his fingers on those keys, is certainly a recipe for goose bumps.
The piano itself is bright and silvery. It is a typical Viennese piano. Which means that compared with the pianos that are manufactured today, the hammers point in the opposite direction.
In other words, if you’re looking at the piano key on a Steinway, or a Yamaha, for that matter a Bösendorfer or any piano which is manufactured today, as you look at the key and you look away, the shank points away and strikes the string fairly far back from the point where the string sound is stopped, near the pin block. Whereas in the Viennese piano there’s a Y‑shaped capsule, and the shank comes back towards you and strikes as close to the edge as possible.
The result of this is that the sound on a Viennese piano is far more focused than it is on a piano of today, which has a greater, you might say warmth, but a greater amplitude of sound.
Now, of course, the pianos that have been manufactured over the last 125 years have a cast iron plate which subjects the strings to tons of tension, whereas in the Viennese pianos of the time it’s a matter of kilograms.
Hence, although the sound can be as loud on a Mozart piano as it is say on a Steinway, it dies away a lot more rapidly. The fact that the hammers are tiny and covered with leather on Viennese instruments shows that what they’re interested in is an instrument which speaks, whereas 19th century instruments, and Chopin is the avatar of these things, are designed to sing.
The genealogy, thus, is that you have two separate lines of development. You’ve got the Viennese pianos, which die out at the turn of the 20th century because they lose the battle in sustaining power because the values have changed.
These Viennese pianos have another characteristic which is extremely important for players, and that is that they are, like harpsichords, parallel strung. All the strings run parallel to one another, whereas the Americans Chickering and Steinway invented the over strung piano in which the bass strings actually move obliquely towards the right and cross with the baritone and tenor strings.
The result of this is to concentrate the sound so that the opening chords of the Tchaikovsky concerto are huge and wonderful and focused. But the consequence of over stringing is also that the bass strings are shorter because they don’t have as much room, and therefore they need thick copper windings to get the pitch low enough to be as low as they were on the parallel strung pianos. As a result, the sound is muddier in the bass in such over strung pianos.
Furthermore, the fact that the strings are over strung means that you have to choose which hand you’re going to bring out and suppress the other. Every child who’s played the piano has been told by his teacher when he or she was young to bring out the melody, and you do that by playing the accompaniment a half to one dynamic softer, or, if the melody is in the left hand, you have suppress the right. Whereas on a parallel strung piano such as this one, you can play both plans equally and one can hear everything.
So the notion that this evolution is a matter of progress is absolutely inaccurate. There are technological aspects of it, but they are above all value systems, which are changing. One wants power and sustaining and smoothness above a volatile, speaking, immediate kind of sound. Therefore, you can exploit things that a Beethoven, that a Schubert, that a Mozart, even that a Brahms wants in their music by understanding and experiencing how these pianos react.
I play probably about 70% of my Mozart performances on the Steinway. I love the Steinway. My wife and I are Steinway artists. We have three Steinways at home. But I have changed completely how I play this repertoire on the Steinway as a result of my experimentations with earlier pianos.
Wesley Horner: Physically, does it take less muscle power?
Robert Levin: Yes, the resistance on a Viennese piano of this type in terms of grams is a fraction of what it is on a typical concert grand of today where the average is about 52 grams. It’s about half that on a period instrument. Thus the action is quick silver. It’s extremely light. It requires less musculature, but, as a result, incredibly more finesse. That is, playing on an instrument of this kind will reveal the slightest unevenness in touch and in speed.
So it’s quite merciless, and you find out that what difficulties one has on a concert grand are the tip of the iceberg because most of it is removed through the resistance. There is also the fact that the keys are narrower and, as a result, an octave on a Mozart piano is about the same width as a seventh on a concert grand.
This means that when you shift back and forth you have to change all of your reflexes. Playing trills and ornaments and so on takes a great deal of conscious change, which is one of the reasons why very few people who play on one of these types of instruments plays much on the other. Because it’s really hard to retool yourself all the time.
Wesley Horner: On the keyboard itself, the white keys and the white keys are reversed. You don’t find that confusing?
Robert Levin: The fact that on harpsichords and on early pianos the white keys are black and the black keys are white is not a real problem. Although when I teach at Harvard I point out that when you think of how easy it is to reverse the black and the white keys, sometimes one wishes it were just as easy to reverse the color of one’s skin. I think it would be very, very useful for people of varying color to experience what it’s like to be of the other type.
Wesley Horner: What an interesting insight. You’re joined on this concert by a violinist and a ‘cellist. Between the 3 of you, you’re playing some pretty interesting instruments. Does that bring another level of emotion or insight into the music?
Robert Levin: The violin that we’re going to be featuring in this concert is Mozart’s own violin, so to have Mozart’s violin and Mozart’s piano in the same concert is, of course, something very, very special. A couple of years ago we did this at the Mozarteum and the Mozartwoche with Giuliano Carmignola, and we did violin and piano music. This time we have piano trios, and we’ll have a classical cello as well.
I do think that there is something about the intimacy of this kind of chamber music. Piano trios, after all, were designed during Haydn and Mozart’s lifetimes, not to be played in the public arena but to be played in the living room.
They were house music type pieces. You’d have a good dinner and then retire to the adjoining room and make some music. There were some commercial possibilities for these kinds of things like piano sonatas, which, in general, were not executed.
Even when Mozart played in public in his subscription concerts he would improvise variations for piano, for instance, and he would improvise fantasies, but he would not perform a sonata.
Wesley Horner: Why is that?
Robert Levin: He would not perform a sonata, because again, it’s house music. It’s domestic stuff. It’s mostly music that was designed to be taught to well-to-do amateurs, the daughters of the old bourgeoisie or of the aristocracy. That was most of it. And people wrote these sonatas for that purpose. Of course Beethoven took the whole genre in a completely different direction. And by the time you get to late Beethoven already, you know, when you think about pieces like the Waldstein or the Appassionata to say nothing of the Hammerklavier. These are not pieces to be used in teaching somewhat gifted amateur pianists. They are the touchstone of the virtuoso.
Wesley Horner: You’ve done this amazing work of completing works by Mozart that he did not. I imagine that some listeners might think, ‘Who is Robert Levin, to write the 11th Commandment?’
Robert Levin: The whole business of proposing to complete unfinished works by one composer or another is certainly not The business of completing Mozart really began almost while Mozart’s body was still warm after he died. That is when Maximilian Stadler helped Mozart’s widow, Constanza, in ordering the musical estate. He already started to complete certain fragments. And some of Stadler’s completions, notably the c minor keyboard fantasy, do make it onto the concert platform with some regularity.
Stadler was a remarkably good musician to put his hand to these things. But his solutions tend to be rather mechanical. He uses the same figure multiplied over and over again. He has a ping‑pong match, in which the same figure is handed back and forth between the violin and the piano a certain number of times.
Although it gets you where it needs to get you, it rarely has the volatility of creative flair I think. Revisiting these pieces I think is interesting. The idea of course is not to suggest to people that you’re going to write something which is as audacious, as inspired, as pleasurable to listen to as what Mozart would surely have done had he lived to complete these pieces but it gives you an idea. It’s like an artist’s conception of an idea before the building is actually constructed.
The fact of the matter is when one listens to these pieces one realizes they were not abandoned because Mozart was dissatisfied with them by and large. He had to stop writing them because he was a short order cook. He made money by writing pieces for the people who wanted him to write them when they wanted him to.
If he was in the middle of a string quartet and someone wanted a wind serenade he had to stop doing what he did and go on and write the wind serenade.
The whole meaning of his unfinished pieces took on a completely different complexion when the late British scholar Alan Tyson did an inventory of the types of paper, the watermarks and so on, that Mozart wrote his music on. He was able to ascertain without any doubt of accuracy that a large number of completed Mozart pieces were fragments for as long as 10 years. Once we see something like that then you realize that those that remain fragments did not necessarily do so because he was dissatisfied but because he didn’t have time and they would, in due course, have been picked up.
When people say, ‘My God, what would Mozart have written in 1792 or 1794?’ we don’t need to speculate. We know exactly what he would have done. He would have done that piano trio, he would have done this string quartet, or he would have done that string quintet. We have lots and lots of music of extraordinary quality that really deserves to be heard once in a while.
And of course there is this combustible attitude of improvisation in which one realizes that no text that Mozart wrote was really sacrosanct. He did not write pieces down so that people would play exactly what he wrote and nothing else. This was not the way music was done in the 18th century and in the early 19th century it wasn’t done that way either.
That is, just the way every performance invited improvisation so, in a sense, the score was a blueprint. It’s a little bit like going to a housing development where 100 houses are built exactly the same way but if you come back 10 years later all of them have different paint jobs, one of them has a set of swings in the front yard, and another one has a vegetable garden and you walk in and there are pictures on the wall which are modern in one house but they’re traditional in another house. Everything takes on a personal sort of attitude.
When one plays music of the 18th century there should be a great deal more flexibility and a great deal more volatility in what is said and how it’s said. If you take a repeat, for instance, heaven forefend you should play exactly the same way you did before. It’s like telling somebody, ‘Look, if you could go back five years and relive your life would you change anything?’
Some people might say, ‘Nah, I think I basically did what I wanted to do,’ but a lot of people would say, ‘Oh boy. I can name you a dozen things that I would done differently.’ A piece of music is an almost cinematic opportunity to revisit a situation and reinterpret it.
Wesley Horner: That’s consistent with Mozart as a performer.
Robert Levin: I am saying that Mozart is a performer and Mozart is a composer or I’m thinking the same way because he knew that his music would last but he wrote it under circumstances that had to do with the then and there. When the Emperor came back unexpectedly to hear him play a concerto and it was the same one that he had heard a couple of weeks before Mozart was, of course, extremely upset because the Emperor shouldn’t be bored. He didn’t have time to write a second piano concerto so he spruced it up by adding trumpets and drums and so on so that the piece would be a little different. Does that mean the second version should supersede the first? No, it’s an alternative to the first. If you’ve got trumpets and drums around it’s a fairly fancy thing to do but it is no more definitive than the first one was.
Wesley Horner: If I remember right, you had some early exposure to jazz as a kid. Did that influence your thinking about improvisation?
Robert Levin: It’s interesting that in that Depression/Roosevelt era that there was a very altruistic sense of getting people exposed to the arts in all sorts of ways. The people symphony concerts in New York were for a dollar or two you could go to a concert and so on. People growing up in a middle class environment in a city like New York were cultural omnivores. In my family, and not just my family, cousins of mine, relatives of mine, they were all doing this. You would walk in and you might hear Gilbert and Sullivan on the phonograph but you might also hear a Broadway musical or some American folk music or some Woody Guthrie or you might hear something from South Africa or you might hear a Mozart opera or you might hear a Beethoven symphony.
Jazz was a very important part of that. My father had a large collection of jazz 78′s. He was also a big George Shearing fan. ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ and ‘I’ll Remember April’ and ‘September in the Rain,’ some of these classics that Shearing did and I grew up with those. I used to take down some of Shearing’s solos by hand so that I could reproduce them.
I had a little jazz combo when I was in the seventh grade but I didn’t go very far with that. It was not something that really was necessary from a point of view of my education or what I was doing. My piano teachers certainly weren’t encouraging me to do this sort of thing.
When I studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky in Nice in the summer of 1966 and queried him about Mozart piano concertos he told me that proper performances of these concerto involved extensive improvisation playing along with the orchestra and so‑called tutti passages, embellishing left and ride, and making up your cadenzas on the spot.
I was thunderstruck. I was 19 years old. I said, “I don’t know anybody who does that.” He said, ‘Well, Friedrich Gulda does that and he’s a jazz pianist and he’s a terrific classical pianist. I made a recording with him of two Mozart concertos. You should go out and buy it and imitate this.’ I went and I bought the record and got Swarowsky to sign it and took it home and put it on the turntable and I was thunderstruck.
I had never heard any. I grew up with Serkin playing these things and of course he was extraordinarily reticent about these things. He was very pious. He was very much interested in playing what was there in the most exclusive way possible but that was it and Schnabel the same thing and so on.
Brendel at that point was starting to do a few things in those early box recordings but it was, by and large, quite pietistic. Hearing Gulda do this absolutely took me by surprise and I thought gee, I’ve got to learn how to do that. My work in competing Mozart was, in a sense, a preparation for improvisation because if you want to run the first thing you need to do is to know how to walk.
Composing in the style of Mozart is a prerequisite to improvising in the style of Mozart because you have no time to take the eraser or to cross things out. You have to live with what you’ve got. This idea of looking at Mozart and trying to figure out how his rhythmic sophistication works, exactly what his chord vocabulary is, the sounds he does use, the sounds he doesn’t use, if you listen to Haydn or Beethoven can you say something objective about these things?
Beethoven, for instance, has a much more restricted harmonic vocabulary than Mozart does and he also is more interested in the cellular, molecular, visceral use of repeated rhythmic cells which become obsessive and exciting and sometimes even maddening. Whereas Mozart is interested in a much smoother sort of flow.
I’m not saying one of these is better than the other. But thank God we’ve got both so we don’t have to choose. If you’re going to improvise a cadenza and a Beethoven concerto he changes keys. He goes to the craziest places and then comes back. Mozart, in the more than 40 cadenzas we have of his, never does that. If I’m going to improvise a cadenza in a Mozart concerto I’ve got to flip the change key switch to the off position and if I do it in Beethoven I have to flip the switch to the change key position.
If I don’t there’ll be something measurable about that that I know isn’t going to be right. Whether the audience notices it or not is another matter. I assume there always will be. There are always smart people in the audience. Mozart himself put this in a wonderful way describing some of the concertos he wrote in 1782/83. He said, ‘They’re a happy medium between the too difficult and the too easy, and they are entertaining without ever becoming banal.’
Then he says in a sentence which is really for the ages, ‘Certain passages will only be understood by connoisseurs but the rest of the audience will not help be pleased albeit it without knowing why.’ It is just sublime because that’s what I feel. When I go out on the stage you have to play for the most sophisticated members of the audience. You must not disappoint them.
You do not have to worry about going over the heads of everybody else because if you do something which is ineffable that really charms and amazes the smartest people in the audience then everyone else will say, ‘I don’t know what that guy’s doing but there’s something that’s going on here. There’s something that’s going on. I’m going to go listen to this guy again.’
Rather than playing to the gallery, those people are pretty happy and other people say, ‘It’s just superficial, it’s got nothing.’
Wesley Horner: Talk to me about the pieces you are playing on this program.
Robert Levin: We are playing the B Flat Trio, which is one of Mozart’s great, great piano trios, a piece of great sophistication. Compared to Haydn it’s a hothouse plant. It doesn’t have anything like that earthy, rustic feeling that Haydn so delectably presents. It’s not nearly so humorous either but it is so polished. It’s exquisite. The slow movement is really one of Mozart’s gentlest and most touching pieces. The B flat variations are variations, 12 of them, on a trifle of a tune. The tune doesn’t even take 30 seconds to play. So, it’s interesting to see how Mozart toys with that in various ways. The C major violin sonata is a piece, which says first sonata for my dear spouse. It’s one of a number of pieces Mozart wrote for Constanze.
This is a real case for the psychiatrist. Essentially no piece that he wrote for his wife was ever finished, extending even to the great c minor mass. It would be interesting to try to figure out why that was the case. In this case he wrote a first movement, which is quite unusual and very personal, and a second movement, which is even more unusual and personal in terms of its audacity.
The second movement leads directly into the third, which is something Mozart never did. Think of the Beethoven fifth symphony with the scherzo going into the finale. It’s that kind of thing. Then he writes the first 20 bars of a finale and he stops. Stadler finishes this in typical Stadler fashion. He goes to keys that Mozart would never visit and, again, there’s this molecular, repetitive aspect to what he does.
It’s not a particularly satisfying ending and therefore people have tended to neglect the superb two first movements of it. I have attempted to do something that’s a little bit more in keeping with Mozart’s style and might encourage people to play this a little bit more often.
Then finally there’s a so‑called piano trio in d minor, K. 442, which is not at all a single piano trio. It is three trio fragments finished by Stadler, and he put them together because he could get a half plausible key scheme by doing so.
The first movement is an opening movement in d minor which is very, very striking. Mozart does not write so many instrumental pieces in the minor mode. So it really, from a qualitative point of view, is a very, very strong piece from 1785. Then comes a finale, actually, a discarded finale, tempo di minueto, for the G major piano trio K. 496. He decided he wanted variations instead of a discursive sonata rondo. Very often he does that.
‘It’s not that I don’t like the piece,’ he says, ‘It’s just not the right movement for this particular piece.’ The third movement is another first movement and it’s a very late movement, probably 1788, maybe even 1789, in Mozart’s late style. It’s like the string trio divertimento: very audacious, and one of the finest pieces for piano trio that he ever wrote.
The fact that it breaks off just before the return of the original material is really quite tragic. These three pieces, each of such terribly different temperament, become part of a speculative thing of what if. In fact, I prepared three different versions of the finale of the violin sonata. It may very well be that in the concert if we have to play an encore that we play a second version. People can see that what I did was hypothetical to begin with. To illustrate it we’re going to show you a completely different version, where the middle section goes in a totally different direction and finds its way home. You can decide which one of them satisfies your imagination the most.