Friday, May 5, 2017

Beth Levin Romances the Keys

CD REVIEW: Beth Levin

Navona Records

In her latest CD release, “Bright Circle,” pianist Beth Levin presents a well-varied program of Romantic and Neo-Romantic composers, from Franz Schubert to Johannes Brahms and David Del Tredici.

Known for embracing both the traditional and contemporary repertoire, Levin combines a bold approach with refreshing sensitivity in her interpretations. Bookending Del Tredici’s 2014 work Ode to Music with Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20, D.959 and the Brahms Op. 24 Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel was a courageous move on her part, and it worked effectively.

The difficulty of Schubert’s piano works is often underestimated, and his last three piano sonatas were for the most part ignored in the years following the composer’s death. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, those sonatas have become recognized for their importance in the scheme of Schubert’s mature works. Levin, who excels in creating atmosphere, mood and contrast, has captured the composer’s majesty in her interpretation of the Piano Sonata D. 959.

The Allegro first movement was well contrasted dynamically, and especially delicate and sensitive in the soft arpeggiated passages. The triplet-heavy sections can be challenging to articulate, but Levin produced both clarity and urgency. The second theme, reminiscent of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, reflected a well-defined understanding of both composers’ styles. Levin portrayed the melancholy and the soothing wiegenlied atmosphere of the Andantino’s heartbreaking melodies without reverting to melodrama, and made sense of the semi-improvisatory Bach Fantasy-like passages.

Levin kept the Scherzo: Allegro Vivace movement, with its Chopin-esque phrases redolent of the music used for his Les Sylphides, sprightly and fairy-like. At times Levin played so quietly as to necessitated a close, careful listening. The fourth movement Rondo Allegretto plays up Schubert’s influence on Schumann, especially in the latter’s piano works, and Levin drew great nobility and vocality from the haunting melodies. She also demonstrated a keen understanding of when to emphasize the melodies and counter-melodies in the left hand.

One does not hear this early Op. 24 Brahms work, based on a theme from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 1 in B-flat major, as often as his later, more famous Variations on a Theme by Haydn. However, Levin’s combination of a unique delicacy and grasp of the Baroque style alternating with Brahmsian dignity proved the former work worthy of being heard more frequently. One could imagine a Handel or a Purcell nodding with approval at the exacting yet never overdone detail of the trills and flourishes in the opening theme/ Aria.

After that, Levin was off and running with a masterful shift to the majesty and impressive scope of the variations that followed. Each variation flowed fluently into the next, each a mini-portrait of characteristics from the composer’s symphonic works to come. Levin again displayed her innate ability to interpret the individual traits of each movement while acknowledging the composer’s intention to stay close to the character of the original theme, finishing with a stirring rendering of the challenging and lengthy fugue as a fitting finale.

David Del Tredici’s Ode to Music is filled with the evocative atmosphere at which Levin excels. Levin actually performed the world premiere of the piece for the 2016 Bargemusic series. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s style has been described as “Neo-Romantic” and flamboyant. This piece demonstrates the former, and Levin played it as if it had been written expressly for her. 

The piece is a unifying force in the three-part panoply of romanticism of this album. Taking a cue from both the abovementioned Brahms Variations and Schubert Sonata, Levin expanded and exploited the expressive qualities of Del Tredici’s Ode to include stylistic reminiscences of those composers plus Beethoven and a bit of Scriabin, making the most of the bravura ending as a fitting climax to a thoughtfully wrought program.

Beth Levin: Bright Circle/ Label: Navona Records NV6074 
Produced by Bob Lord


Photo credits: courtesy of the artist; Navona Records
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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