CAMBRIDGE — The pianist and musical polymath Robert Levin is probably best known for picking up the pen where great composers have put it down. His completions and reconstructions of many works by Mozart in particular, most notably the Requiem and the Mass in C Minor, have been performed in concert halls across the world. At the keyboard, Levin’s talents as an improviser have also earned him wide attention.
All the while, or at least since the early 1990s, Levin has served on the music faculty of Harvard University, where among other courses he has taught the department’s famed chamber music class, Music 180, carrying on the legacy of the course’s founder, Leon Kirchner.
Levin, 66, will be retiring this year and to celebrate his contributions, the music department has created a prize in his name. It also presented him in a solo recital on Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre.
The city’s broader musical community turned out in force for the occasion, making it seem like far more than a Harvard affair. For this type of program, one might have expected Levin to draw from the well of classical works he knows so intimately, but the pianist instead chose to place on view a less widely visible aspect of his creative life: his devotion to the music of living composers. In particular he has forged close ties over the years with Yehudi Wyner, John Harbison, and Bernard Rands among other composers, and Sunday’s program was made up of works written for him by each of them.
The Wyner-Levin connection has been well-established by the composer’s 2005 Piano Concerto, “Chiavi in Mano,” which earned a Pulitzer Prize. For this recital Levin chose a group of three smaller Wyner works written in the 1990s, short Fantasies each linked to a particular occasion. “Sauce 180” refers both to a particular pasta sauce and the course Music 180. “Mano a Mano” alludes to a hand injury Levin once suffered. “Straccio Vecchio” or “Old Rag” was also tossed in for good measure. With their personal contexts, these lighthearted works suggest themselves as souvenirs of a sustained friendship, but they also stand on their own in purely musical terms as urbane miniatures, often reflecting Wyner’s sophisticated way of both honoring and transforming vernacular materials.
Harbison’s Piano Sonata No. 2 arrives with a similarly rich back-story involving a commission from Levin for $1, though the music itself is a more conventionally proportioned concert work through which, the composer explained in a note, he tried to connect his choral vocabulary with his purely instrumental writing. Cast in four movements, the piece is by turns declamatory and oblique, angular and ambiguous. It’s also generously supplied with moments of uncommon beauty whose arrival seems all the more rewarding for being not given but earned.
Rands’s 12 Preludes for Solo Piano place their personal link to Levin directly in their formal layout — the first letters of each prelude’s title form an acrostic spelling out the pianist’s name. The Preludes themselves keep the ear engaged through a wonderful diversity of texture and character, from insouciantly jazzy to drivingly virtuosic, while also building in a sustained expressive arc from first to last. On Sunday the set’s two memorial movements, honoring the composers Luciano Berio and Donald Martino, brought the work’s most striking moments of gravity and mystery.
Interspersed among these selections was the premiere of “Träume” or “Dreams,” an elusive, atmospheric work by the Romanian composer Hans Peter Türk, and, as an encore, one of the “Fireflies” for solo piano by Thomas Oboe Lee. Levin’s playing throughout the afternoon was marked by a keen sensitivity and, more to the point, a deeply immersive sympathy for the particular composition at hand. One might say that the pianist’s most singular gift, spanning his multiple roles, is his ability to internalize a composer’s language and speak it with both fluency and generative force, whether that composer lived in 18th-century Vienna or 21st-century Cambridge.
At the conclusion of Sunday’s program, a grateful public gathered in the latter city made its appreciation known.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.