A Daniel Levy Celebration – Bernard Jacobson

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Daniel Levy

It may seem curious, in these pervasively materialistic days, to speak of a morality of art. We have all of us encountered artists whose motivation seems to lie in the desire for personal gain or glory rather than in any higher aim. As Daniel Levy once put it in an interview, “commercial considerations often tend to override artistic aspirations,” and soloists “may be seduced by the glamour of the publicity machine so that they are in danger of believing in their own self-importance and imposing themselves before the music,” losing “that vital bridge of communication to convey the spirit of a composer’s music to audiences.” It is, in part, because Levy himself has never succumbed to such temptations that I esteem him among the noblest musicians of our time.

To think with any clarity about the role of the interpreter in musical communication is to become aware at once of the special and unusually complex nature of the art of music itself. With painting or sculpture, the link between the creative artist and the public is immediate: once his work is put on display, all that has to happen is for someone to look at it. For the novelist or the poet, the case is similar, with only the machinery of publication, printing, and distribution interposed.

Music is very different. It’s always amusing to hear someone say, as people do, “Oh, yes, I have Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” I’m sorry: you can’t have “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony”; it can’t even be properly said to exist except when a conductor and an orchestra are playing it, or when they’ve recorded it and someone is listening to the recording. In that process, the role of the interpretative artist is as crucial as it has always been controversial: how much can, or should, the performer’s personality contribute to the listener’s experience?

Over the centuries, composers have mostly been very clear in expecting the performer to contribute a great deal. A few prescriptive remarks aside, from such exceptions as Verdi, who said “I do not allow either singers or conductors to ‘create’,” the predominant instinct has been to treat the interpreter as a full, even as an equal, collaborator. Sibelius once told Adrian Boult, “If ever your musical instinct tells you to do something different from my marking, please obey your instinct”; and even a relative martinet like Stravinsky could say to Colin Davis, when that conductor was defending a tempo choice on the ground that he had made it in accordance with the composer’s metronome marking, “My dear boy, the metronome mark’s only a beginning.”

What, after all, is music for anyway, and how does its performance fulfill that purpose? When someone congratulated Handel on the effect a performance of Messiah had on its audience, the composer responded, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them–I wish to make them better.” One of the most richly communicative composers of our own time, Bernard Rands, has said: “My main motive in writing music is to put myself in touch with areas of myself that I might not otherwise discover, and to offer audiences a similar experience.” And Wilhelm Furtwängler declared that it was the task of the performer to seek out the sense of the numinous in music.

It’s surely clear that such sharing of inspiration, and such imparting of illumination and insight, can only happen as a communion of souls, and the intermediary in such a communion can hardly be a non-contributing bystander. The trick always, for the performer, is to make his or her powerfully personal contribution in a way that will enhance rather than obscure the effect of the composer’s voice. And it seems to me that Daniel Levy–to come to the point–has consistently fulfilled that broadly artistic, and thus profoundly moral, aim in common with just a handful of the greatest pianists I have had the privilege of hearing in more than half a century of critical listening.

“In common” sounds like a loaded expression: are the aims of all great pianists the same? As Tolstoy observed in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Something similar might be said of successful and unsuccessful musicians, and it’s true that, in the biographies of the best performers, the statement that they “devote themselves unreservedly to the service of the composer” recurs with almost dreary predictability. But it’s precisely the capacity to so devote your playing and at the same time to lay your own soul bare that sets the true interpretative genius apart from the crowd. Henri Neuhaus said, of his celebrated pupil Sviatoslav Richter, “His rhythm is at the same time perfectly strict and perfectly free.” That is one of the qualities I’ve always observed in the playing of the master pianists of our own time–Ivan Moravec, for instance, or Garrick Ohlsson, or Stephen Hough. And it’s in such select company that Daniel Levy’s playing consistently locates him.

Always, in Levy’s performances, it is the uniquely personal character of each individual composer that is emphasized by the pianist’s similarly personal vision. For Mozart, he finds a feathery touch that yet never degenerates into mere superficiality–and the drama of Mozart’s A-minor Sonata is intensified by the very naked texture Levy fashions for it. His Schubert, by contrast, exudes a breadth of phrase and a warmth of resonance that sound exactly right. He can identify equally convincingly with the grandiose afflatus and the inwardness of that Protean composer Liszt, and sumptuous ease, graceful filigree, elegiac gravity, and an explosive vehemence that can be genuinely frightening coexist in his Chopin. He can even–surprise, surprise!–make that self-aggrandizing composer Scriabin sound modest and witty.

But it is with a composer to whom he has devoted particular attention, Robert Schumann, that Levy seems to identify with special conviction. If you listen to some of his most recent recordings, you will find Schumann’s personality and his compendious artistic range illuminated with fresh and perhaps unsurpassed vividness. We already know, from his most familiar works, what an intensely human composer Schumann is–at once mercurial and gemütlich, dreamy and epigrammatic. There is rhythmic fluidity in the writing, with its frequently offbeat accents, and a sometimes surprising richness of polyphony that contradicts the supposed verticality of the piano’s natural textures. Yet it’s not often that the musical character is realized with such force and clarity as, for instance, in Levy’s performance of the seventh movement of Kreisleriana, combining sheer rhythmic impetus with unshakable poise, and continuity of pulse with delicacy of paragraphing.

The pianist achieves light and shade even in this hell-for-leather piece; and that restrained ending, by the way, is the kind of thing that Levy turns to eloquent account in his playing of Schumann–the composer’s almost Ivesian way of closing a boisterous piece with a brief slower and lighter conclusion. There are other Schumannesque characteristics, too, that we may not previously have noticed, but that come to the fore in some of the less well-known works Levy has recorded. Listening to the eighth of the Albumblätter, or Album Leaves, Opus 124, I’m almost tempted–if this isn’t too much of an insult–to suggest that Schumann’s exploitation of unevenly truncated phrases and dissociative textures, searchingly rendered by Levy, points forward to some of Schoenberg’s piano music.

It has been fifteen years since I first encountered Daniel Levy’s playing, in a superb recording of Schubert’s G-major Sonata and his Opus 90 Impromptus. Everything I have heard of his work since then has confirmed my view of him as one of the finest musicians now before the public. Whenever he plays a piece I thought I knew well, he ends by telling me things about it that I had never thought of before. It is surely that gift, along with the blessed willingness to take risks (backed by the cast-iron strength of technique necessary for any successful piano-playing), that distinguishes great artistry from mere craftsmanship.

Bernard Jacobson Bernard Jacobson was born in London.Formerly the music critic of the Chicago Daily News and visiting professor of music at Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University, he was The Philadelphia Orchestra’s program annotator from 1984 to 1992, serving also as musicological adviser to Riccardo Muti. He has published three books and translations from several languages, written poetry for musical setting, and performed as narrator in recordings and in concerts around the world.