Performing Beethoven agrees with fortepianist Levin

Robert Levin, the acclaimed Harvard music scholar and fortepianist, returned to the scene of many earlier triumphs on Friday for a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major with the Handel and Haydn Society in Symphony Hall. He brought with him Harvard’s replica of an 1805 Viennese fortepiano, which he had used in his 1999 recording of Beethoven’s piano concertos with Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Pianist, instrument, and orchestra made beautiful music together, and they were rapturously received.

Levin played with a combination of deep familiarity and understanding gained from many performances on the one hand and a sense of fresh wonder and discovery on the other. And, one should add, without any sign of technical impairment. This is the combination one hopes for in the later part of a pianist’s career, but it seems to have become rare since the days of Serkin, Rubinstein, and Horowitz. (Among living pianists, Russell Sherman has it.) Levin, at 63, is still in his high summer, and one senses a rich harvest ahead.

One was a little wary after Levin’s performance last year of a Mozart concerto, also with the H&H, that was high on whimsy and short on elegance (with lots of Tom Hulce-like mugging from the keyboard). Beethoven seems to be more agreeable country. He played the Fourth Concerto straight, with fast, forward tempos, nimble passagework, a dancing lilt when called for, and a respect for the composer’s dramatic rhetoric — “Wait for it!’’ you can almost hear Beethoven yelling at the orchestra, “It won’t be what you think!’’ — while fully enjoying the showiness of it all.

There was some minor fudging in the third movement, which he suggested, in an after-concert talk, was caused by a sticking hammer on an F-sharp. The problem led him to take out the fortepiano’s action in the pause after the first movement and to tinker with the hammer. It was a gesture that underlined, in a way, the delicate, organic nature of the fortepiano (which lacks the metal frame or “harp’’ of the grand piano that supports heavier strings and a bigger soundboard).

The instrument made a stunning dramatic effect in the second movement, emerging with a ghostly quality as Levin began by playing with the soft pedal, “una corda,’’ against loud, menacing strings, and then building slowly to a climax as he released the pedal. (Levin buys one scholar’s speculation that this movement is the story of Orpheus in the Underworld.) The two long improvised cadenzas were skillful, of course, but not as engaging as one had hoped. Levin used mostly established material, mostly running up and down the keyboard, and did not ever seem really to risk getting lost, which is part of the fun of an improvisation. It’s a conundrum: How far can a modern pianist improvise without sounding un-historical? If he went a bit far afield in the Mozart (who is all about style), these cadenzas might have contained more spacious solitary reflection and harmonic probing, and offered a sharper contrast with the ensemble passages.

Two Haydn symphonies, No. 83 in G Minor, “The Hen,’’ and the well known No. 94 in G Major, “Surprise,’’ bookended the concerto. Bernard Labadie, the Canadian conductor who last conducted the H&H in 2000, led these (as he did the Beethoven) with enormous vigor and dynamic nuance. He seemed to shape each movement in a slow, steady crescendo and to end each one with a grand stroke. The orchestra’s woodwinds made many notable contributions. Flutist Christopher Krueger shone particularly brightly.

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