Robert Levin, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The Haydn season kicked off with the obligatory splurge on Radio 3, and a massed charge led by Andras Schiff at the Wigmore Hall, but the really interesting thing was what the musicologist and fortepianist Robert Levin was doing at the Southbank. We quite often hear the fortepiano in these period-conscious days, but, sandwiched between performances on modern instruments, it always ends up sounding thin and a little bit impotent – so attuned are our ears to the luxurious richness of the Steinway.

So when Levin launched into a series of Haydn sonatas on the instrument for which they were composed, it was a revelation both of the music and the instrument itself. The fortepiano Levin was playing had a beautifully mellow middle and a rich and plummy bass, but what was remarkable was the range of pedal effects he could achieve. This is because the fortepiano has three pedals – one to strike just one string, one with a felt damper, and one to sustain the sound – and by using combinations of these, Levin could create the impression of wind over the strings, or of a ghostly musical box. In other words, the puny fortepiano can, in the right hands, deliver a range of colour beyond the power of a Steinway.

Levin's crusade, like Schiff's, is to get us to see Haydn as being on a par with Mozart, as opposed to being his more modest precursor. His musical wit is already recognised, and these sonatas were full of it, but what came across powerfully were his prophetic games with harmony: Wagner and even Shostakovich are at times adumbrated in Haydn's intricately protracted modulations. As an encore, Levin gave us one of Mozart's loveliest slow movements, but ornamented and pedalled as never before: this was another revelation. If I had to choose between an evening of unadulterated music by one or the other, I would unhesitatingly choose Haydn: Mozart was divine, but Haydn was the more interesting.

Levin brought in violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch and cellist David Watkin for the second of his concerts, in which he presented pianos trios by Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart, which had been written at virtually the same time. Mozart's was a miniature piano concerto, Beethoven's Opus 1 already possessed the mature Beethoven's majesty, while Haydn's trio ploughed its own unique furrow. Point made, and taken: bravo.