REVIEW / Dusting off the furniture: Adrian Jack watches Robert Levin attacking a period piano at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

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The Independent Culture
The point of playing period instruments is not just to restore the sound of another age but to recover its probable horizons of expressiveness - if you like, to make better sense of music's contemporary limitations.

Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata seems as powerful a breaker of the modern piano as the heftiest piece by Xenakis, and one would have thought it might sound even more threatening on a comparatively delicate instrument of 1825. Paradoxically, although the American scholar and pianist Robert Levin is pretty hefty himself and has no inhibitions about using to the full an antique for the purpose for which it was built, his onslaught on Beethoven's mighty string-breaker seemed to do a period instrument no worse than affect pitch slightly, and hardly more than it might a modern piano.

For his recital on Thursday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank, Levin had apparently gone to great pains to find a piano built by Johann Fritz in 1825, just a few years after Beethoven wrote his sonata, and the very same year as the composition of the other work in the programme, Schubert's Sonata in D major. As a piece of furniture, the piano is a lovely example of Biedermeier style, chastely classical, with a handsomely simple case of flame mahogany standing on three columns with gilt bandings at the top and bottom.

At the beginning of the Schubert, Levin's vigorous accents came as a shock, because in the hall the tone sounded unexpectedly small and distant and contrasting soft passages were almost obliterated. One had to adjust.

But it's arguable that Levin was forcing unduly and marking accents too heavily. If the sonority in the gentle second movement was delicate and silvery, it nonetheless lacked the sustained singing quality of a modern piano, but the decorations which Levin added to the repeat of the theme nicely compensated. Yet that was the only touch of fancy in a performance that was above all forthright and bristled with barely contained energy, as if Schubert were straining at the leash.

Which is precisely the almost unruly effect we have come to associate with the Hammerklavier. Odd, then, that it sounded almost neat - though never dull - on this occasion. Partly that was due to limited resonance, so there was no danger of the counterpoint becoming clouded. But then Levin's articulation was also very clean, and his fluctuations of tempo always as marked by the composer and clearly defined - if anything, too precisely rehearsed.

Seldom has the slow movement passed so easily (an ambiguous virtue) or the final fugue sounded so unchaotic. At least some hint of chaos might have been welcome.

Still, it was a great pleasure to hear the movement expounded on such lucid terms, and while this wasn't the deeply moving experience we know the Hammerklavier can be, it was no doubt a corrective to the wishful thought that Beethoven was some sort of Samson, destroying the structures of Classicism in a spirit of Romantic liberation.

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