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Beth Levin: Phantasmata Aldilà Records


February 2024

Brooklyn-based pianist Beth Levin isn't alone in possessing formidable technical ability—a number of high-profile classical pianists match her in that regard—and neither is she the only one whose comfort zone spans traditional and contemporary composers. No, what sets Levin apart is the way she personalizes her interpretations and imposes her own authoritative stamp on the material she plays. Listening to a performance by her, the impression forms of a pianist who's examined and absorbed the composer's work so completely that the interpretation begins to seem as if she should be credited as not just performer but co-author. Complementing that ability is an adventurous curatorial sensibility that sees her assembling album set-lists that are daring and inspired.

Look no further than her latest by way of illustration. Phantasmata couples Franz Liszt and Modest Mussorgsky on a seventy-two-minute programme that juxtaposes the former's Sonate in h-moll (1853) and the latter's Pictures at an Exhibition (1874). Both are original and imaginative creations, but one fundamental difference immediately declares itself in the Liszt work being a single-movement colossus and the Mussorgsky equal to it in duration but packaged in sixteen bite-sized chunks.

Considered by many Liszt's masterpiece for solo piano, Sonate in h-moll (the only sonata he composed) is one of those Mount Everest-like undertakings that only the fiercest and most intrepid pianist would consider tackling; that's especially true when the energy and stamina needed to execute it challenges the interpreter so mightily. Max Derrickson writes in liner notes that with three themes presented in the first fifteen bars, “we have almost all of the material for the rest of the Sonata—material that will scale summits and descend valleys in extraordinary ways” (interestingly, the opening gesture wouldn't sound out of place in Pictures at an Exhibition). Levin's connection to the material runs so deep it feels as if she's incarnating the composer as she plays and channeling Liszt at every turn.

In his probing analysis of the work, Derrickson asserts that Liszt created “a sonata movement inside a symphonic format,” meaning, in other words, that it places sonata elements (exposition, development, recapitulation, coda) within the four-movement design of a symphony (allegro, adagio, scherzo, finale). The oceanic work is, admittedly, an often dizzying and tumultuous ride, but there is many a passage of hushed tenderness and poignancy (see the disarmingly beautiful ones that emerge at the fifteen- and twenty-minute marks) to offset the numerous triple-forte ones. Initial reception to the work wasn't encouraging—Clara Schumann said it was full of “nothing but sheer racket” and music critic Eduard Hanslick opined that anyone who found it beautiful was “beyond help”—but it's very much alive today, obviously, and ready to be born anew whenever a pianist of Levin's calibre takes it on.

Mussorgsky created Pictures at an Exhibition after attending a posthumous exhibition of watercolour paintings and drawings by Viktor Hartmann and was inspired to, in his words, create a “sequence of ten piano pieces organically connected by an interlude repeated four times in varied form.” Today, it's the 1922 version by Ravel that has become the most favoured of the orchestrations created, and of course general familiarity with the work spread when Emerson Lake & Palmer issued its prog version in 1971. As performed by Levin, five interspersed “Promenade” episodes (which might be interpreted as the composer moving from one piece in the exhibit to the next) lend the work a grounding structure and interconnected unity (the booklet incorrectly shows “Bydlo” as the second movement, whereas it should be “Gnomus,” with “Bydlo [Heavy ox-cart]” in the seventh spot).

The piece begins with the first “Promenade,” its absence of harmonization maximizing the impact of the haunting theme in its initial presentation. The second movement abruptly takes over, its ominous creep gnome-like in its suggestiveness, until it too is quickly replaced by the second “Promenade,” which sets a gentle stage for the plaintive lyricism of “Il vecchio castello.” After the third “Promenade” asserts itself dramatically, “Tuileries (Dispute d'enfants après jeux)” evokes the impression of children playing at the famous Paris gardens, the carefree tone worlds removed from the sluggish movements and downtrodden spirit of “Bydlo (Heavy ox-cart).” Livelier by comparison is “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Eggs,” which is followed by “Samuel Goldenberg & Schmuyle” and its entwining of a chattering, high-pitched theme and low-register pronouncements. After the final, now elaborately harmonized “Promenade” appears, Mussorgsky moves from the sparkling scene-painting of a bustling marketplace (“Limoges. Le Marché”) and the oppressiveness of Paris's underground cemetery (“Catacombae [Sepulcrum Romanum]”) to the clangorous, refracted return of the “Promenade” theme (“Cum mortuis in lingua mortua”) and the climactic grandeur of “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Levin's artful handling of tempo, touch, and dynamics noticeably amplifies the stirring beauty of Mussorgsky's melodically rich writing throughout her performance.

No surprise to anyone familiar with her earlier releases, Phantasmata is a stellar addition to a distinguished discography that includes 2017's Bright Circle: Schubert, Brahms, Del Tredici (Navona Records) and 2021's Hammerklavier Live (Aldilà Records), featuring material by Händel, Beethoven, and Anders Eliasson.

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