Powerful and idiosyncratic, Beth Levin has her own ideas of “Romantic” repertory.
SCHUMANN: Davidsbuendlertaenze, Op. 6; ELIASSON: Disegno 2 for Piano; CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 2 in b-flat, Op. 35 “Funeral March” – Beth Levin, p. – Navona NV6016, 63:00 (1/8/16) [Distr. by Parma] ****:
Philadelphia-born pianist Beth Levin (b. 1950) continues to perform in a Romantic tradition set by her teachers Milan Filar, Leonard Shure, and Rudolf Serkin. On this Navona disc (rec. 27 July 2015), Levin approaches two arch Romantics, Schumann and Chopin, as well as an unfamiliar, modern contemporary, Anders Eliasson (1947-2013). The major work, the 1837 Dances of the Davids-League of Robert Schumann, allow Levin to project a variety of touches and colors rife with personality and psychic ecstasies. While commentators usually focus on the personal labyrinths involved with Florestan and Eusebius – Schumann’s extrovert and introvert projections of self – I like to characterize these eighteen “tempi of initiation” as a Rosetta Stone for Schumann’s musical syntax, opening as it does with a quote from a Clara Wieck piece – her own key tends to C Major.
Davidsbuendlertaenze appear as two sets of nine dances, with occasionally repeated drooping figures and rhetorical associations. As with many Schumann opera, the music surges ahead in emotional spurts and whirling figures, only to relent into dreamscapes and maerchen, assertive fairy-tales. The No. 7 Nicht schnell seems typical of the meandering reverie that searches to find its proper gait in its second section. The No. 16 foreshadows Richard Strauss, first chattering idly, only to be silenced by a contemplative section that subdues the skeptics. Beth Levin plays with an astute attention to piano tone, reveling in the luster of the notes singly and in combination. Levin’s tempos remain decidedly on the slow side, sharing a penchant I find in late Claudio Arrau and aged Elly Ney. The effect, however, does not suffer, as in the Innig (No. 2) that re-appears as part of the postlude. One might – and here we invoke a slightly later Schumann – call Levin’s performance “almost too serious.” But the love of and the nostalgia for the dream has found a fine acolyte in Beth Levin.
The middle piece – the 1973 Disegno 2 for Piano has a justification – or inflated apology – by Gill Reavill in the liner notes that attributes all sorts of hypostasized infatuation to this work, which Reavill assigns a “self-organized mobility of harmony.” I find the music rather aleatory and unconvincing, stylistically and dramatically. Happily, as one person noted at a Leonard Bernstein concert that included music by Webern, “it is brief.”
The Chopin Sonata No. 2 (1837-1839) provides Levin another passionate canvas on which to apply her febrile magic. Again, I find in her staid tempo selection and trend to marcato an expressiveness which slows the momentum but raises the epic character of the gestures. The middle section of the Scherzo presents us a sad nocturne of ineffable, lyric tenderness, the remembrance of sweet things past. If I failed to mention the persuasive character of Levin’s trill in Schumann, I laud it now. The Marche Funebre by Levin realizes the slowest conception of this archetypal moment in Chopin in my experience. The sense of tolling bells fully alerts us to their use in Rachmaninov, once more attended by a dire, sweeping trill. And once more, the middle section literally oozes with Francesca da Rimini’s recollections of happy moments in the midst of deepest sorrow. Poetic and intimate, the Marche retains its fluency and grave tension in spite of the elongation of the line. The grand return of the Marche – da capo – rings with a luminous quality that urges us to hear Levin reach the Great Gate of Kiev. Finally, the eldritch Presto movement – what Artur Rubinstein called “a dance in the graveyard” – comes as an emotionally perfunctory sneer at or from Death, denying anything like humane sentiments. We have Leonardo’s last self-portrait, his eyes confronting the abyss. Solid and warm piano sound, courtesy of audio director Jeff LeRoy and mastering engineer Nate Hunter.