Beth Levin: Bright Circle (Schubert / Brahms / Del Tredici)
Navona Records

Though pianist Beth Levin has become known for her recordings of music by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Schubert, she also champions the work of contemporary composers, among them Henryk Gorecki, Michael Rose, Andrew Rodin, and David Del Tredici, the latter two of whom have written works expressly for her. In truth, it was the latter's presence on Bright Circle that more than anything else initially attracted me to the release. My first exposure to his music came in 1992 when Nonesuch issued his 1980 Pulitzer Prize-winning In Memory of a Summer Day, one in a long line of Alice in Wonderland-themed works spanning a quarter-century (1968-1995), and so captivated was I by the hour-long work that other Del Tredici recordings have regularly found their way into my collection ever since.

I expected his 2014 composition might be dramatically unlike the Schubert and Brahms pieces (the Piano Sonata No. 20, D. 959 and Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, respectively), but as it turns out Ode To Music, a so-called fantasy on the Schubert song “An die Musik,” isn't so different after all; in fact, the long-time Manhattanite himself describes the piece as one “Franz Schubert might have written had he been enamored of Richard Wagner and been a piano student of Franz Liszt,” making it into something of a modern-day counterpart to those early Romantic works. At the same time, Ode To Music is very clearly marked by Del Tredici's customary daring and the expressiveness of his Neo-Romantic style. One additional connection between the three pieces: just as Del Tredici re-imagines Schubert on this seventy-eight-minute release, Brahms does much the same with Handel.

Levin, a child prodigy who debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of twelve, is the kind of musician who long ago laid to rest any issues having to do with the technical command of her instrument and who's therefore able to devote her full attention to capturing the music's character in definitive manner. To that end, sensitivity of touch and control of dynamics, phrasing, and tempo become paramount concerns in any performance she gives. Writing in Music and Vision about Personae, another recent Navona release by Levin, Tiara Ataii described the pianist's playing as “near perfection, maintaining intensity in each note and crystalline tone in ever register,” and such a glowing assessment could be said to apply equally to Bright Circle.

Even if your greater interest, like mine, lies in the Del Tredici piece, there's no denying the conviction Levin brings to the other two, whose respective parts she renders with the utmost care. Schubert's sonata is a perfect vehicle for Levin, given the wide dynamic range explored in its four parts. The elegance of the “Allegro” and “Rondo. Allegretto” movements are well-served by her command of phrasing and articulation, and the ease with which she modulates between high-spirited and quieter passages is an endless source of pleasure. Still, as engrossing as the sonata is as a whole, it's the “Andantino” that provides the best example of her artistry in the delicacy with which she renders its gentler moments.

Brahms' Handel homage bookends an opening “Aria” and concluding “Fugue” with twenty-five Baroque-inflected variations, many of them exquisite miniatures lasting no more than a minute at a time. It's no surprise that the variations range widely in dynamics and style, with some animated and stately and others dramatic and pensive, and it's even less of a surprise that Levin meets every one of its challenges with aplomb. The restraint in the writing is explained by the fact that the originating melody appeared in a work for harpsichord, but the additional space in Levin's playing (the ultra-dense “Fugue” an audible exception) that results doesn't prove unwelcome.

At disc's end, Del Tredici's eleven-minute fantasia arrives, and though long in coming the wait is worth it. Certainly Schubert's roots very much show throughout the piece, but its exuberant flights of fancy and dramatic melodic flourishes have Del Tredici written all over it. No fronting here: I do wish more of him had been featured on the release—his contribution constitutes but one-seventh of the total running time—but that mild sense of disappointment is alleviated by the high level of musicianship Levin displays throughout. She's a virtuoso who brings everything she plays to vivid life, and as a result the listener is dazzled regardless of whether the work in question came into being a year ago or centuries before.

March 2017