“Mozart is . . . the alter ego of senior music concentrator Robert Levin.” That was how an appreciative 1968 review from the Harvard Crimson described the affinity that Levin had shown for Mozart’s music. The occasion was an all-Mozart concert in which Levin was the pianist, including a piano concerto and violin sonata.
Of even greater interest were two movements left unfinished by Mozart, which Levin had completed — one for clarinet quintet, the other for piano, violin, and orchestra. Remarkably for an undergraduate’s work, the Crimson writer noted that “there was no noticeable break between the exposition as completed by Mozart and [Levin’s] own continuation based on his knowledge of and empathy with the master’s style.”
Levin, 74, has gone on to become a leading Mozart authority, a scholar-performer with a particular focus on completing some of the composer’s many unfinished works. His versions of Mozart’s C-minor Mass and Requiem are perhaps the best-known of his efforts — both have been performed numerous times. A popular faculty member at his alma mater, Levin retired in 2014 after almost two decades teaching at Harvard, where he’s now an emeritus professor.
His latest project is a milestone in his storied career: a recording of Mozart’s complete piano sonatas, out Sept. 16 on the ECM label. It is the first such set to have been recorded on Mozart’s own fortepiano, and it includes Levin’s completions of three sonata movements that the composer began but left incomplete.
In one sense, the recording is the result of Levin’s long association with the International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg. The foundation, dedicated to preserving Mozart’s heritage, owns the composer’s fortepiano, and Levin has performed on it numerous times during the foundation’s annual Mozart Week festival. But in a deeper way, one can see it as a culmination in his nearly lifelong exploration of Mozart’s music and life.
That immersion is necessary in taking on the task of finishing pieces the composer began and, for any number of reasons, put aside. Levin compared the task to that of an actor.
“You slip into the skin of another person and become that person,” Levin said recently by phone from the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in Wisconsin. “So if you’re going to perform a piece, let’s say by Mozart, the more you delve into his dialect, his particular lingo, [the more] you understand his vocabulary, the things that he does, the things that he doesn’t do — melodically, rhythmically, harmonically.”
The next requirement is to understand where, structurally, the composer’s fragment left off, and the importance of all the music in that fragment, “so that when you start to extend onward, you’ll understand what he’s likely to have done.
“You can’t, of course, have the arrogance of assuming that you will divine exactly what he had in mind,” he added. “But at least you’ll know you’re living within his world.”
The recordings are also notable for Levin’s liberal use of ornamentation; the embellishment of the music as written in the score. Levin’s versions go further on this point than any other I know. When sections of a sonata are repeated — which was common practice in this era — he freely adds not just a few notes but often entire phrases, in both the melody and the accompaniment. Levin thinks this is not just an option for a performer; he thinks it is essential for anyone aiming to inhabit the performance practice of the time.
He came to this point of view through a study of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach — one of J.S. Bach’s sons and a composer of signal importance for Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven — and his practice of writing out repeated material with extensive ornamentation. Levin realized that Bach’s approach pointed to a performance practice quite different from what we often think this music calls for.
He finds a parallel in the way you might repeat a joke. “Telling a joke is not a matter of remembering a specific succession of words,” Levin explained. Rather, it’s “a process of assembling a sequence of events, which leads to a punch line, which makes everybody laugh. You can tell the joke in 50 different ways. And what [Bach] shows is that the identity of a work is not determined by the notes on the page, but rather by the elegance and the intent, the intensity and the entertainment of the unfolding drama of the story that you tell.”
The scholarly details of how to play this music correctly are important, especially to someone like Levin, whose Mozart work has straddled the worlds of the academic and the performer. But there was an emotional aspect of sitting down to play this music at Mozart’s own instrument that transcended those debates.
“When you sit down at a piano like that, and you look at the slight concavities of the keys, and you realize that you’re sitting at the instrument at which Mozart premiered his pathbreaking piano concertos and played other repertoire, as well — it’s hard to avoid goosebumps.”