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BSO, Levin Brew Brilliance

In Evening of Beethoven, Pianist Robert Levin Gives Magnificent Performance

By Jonathan Richmond

All-Beethoven Concert, Coriolan Overture.

Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 4

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Robert Levin, piano

Seizi Ozawa, conductor

Symphony Hall, April 24

Picture poor Orpheus, separated from his beloved Eurydice and descending into Hades in the vain hope of retrieving her. Wellesley Professor Owen Jander has persuasively argued that Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto takes the Orpheus legend as its program, and the pathos and power of Robert Levin’s performance of the work Tuesday night in Symphony Hall revealed that Jander is dead on target.

Levin was standing in for pianist Alfred Brendel, who had flown back to Germany for medical advice on an injury to his arm, and put on what must be one of the most spectacular performances Symphony Hall has ever hosted. Playing Beethoven’s second and fourth piano concertos, he brought not only endless energy, but also a depth of insight and creativity that revealed wonders anew in each and every nook and cranny of these well-explored works. Brendel presented them with a vibrancy that made them appear fresh and new -- as if the ink of the composition had dried just today.

The slow movement of the fourth concerto provided the most profound moments of a spellbinding evening. Levin’s piano opening was very serious and beautiful in its gentleness. By this stage in Beethoven’s career the soft pedal had been developed to restrict piano hammer action to one of three strings (una corda) when a soft effect was desired. Likewise, we heard in Levin’s dulcet playing the terrified but love-ensnared Orpheus venture forth into Hades balanced precariously on an una corda tightrope.

The piano not only relays the hopes and fears of Orpheus, but in three-string mode bears witness to the brutality of the Furies of Hades intent on his destruction. Levin’s muscular playing evoked the savagery, the nightmare rammed home by a solid wall of precisely controlled BSO strings barring Orpheus’ descent into the depths and, indeed, telling him to get the hell out of there. Levin’s piano, venturing forth in una corda disregard of the danger, spoke of loneliness and pain but, in delicate nuance, communicated the essentials of hope to make this a deeply human performance.

Levin brought an inspired logic to the performances of both concerti, gripping and drawing his audience into the most fantastic of journeys. His ability to move naturally from serene legato to violent cacophony was magnetic. His improvisation of cadenzas in both concerto showed extraordinary daring: his solo ravings in the fourth concerto first movement cadenza reached such a level of brilliant madness that it seemed as if Beethoven himself were seated at the keyboard. His control here was fabulous. The interweaving of themes from the work during the cadenza showed a fine intellectual understanding, coupled with a drive to make Levin’s Steinway at once an instrument of fine music and the outlet of the manic and despairing genius of the composer of the work driving the soloist to heights of excellence.

Conductor Seiji Ozawa narrowly missed a nasty accident during this cadenza. He stood nervously watching the pianist’s hands, quite unsure when the Devil would leave Levin alone and allow the orchestra to come back and bring the work to its conclusion. At one point, Ozawa mistakenly raised his arms to the orchestra, dropping them just in time to allow Levin to continue his unfinished machinations unhindered.

The third movement of the fourth concerto sees the demise of Orpheus as he falls prey to tibia, cornu, timpanaque (Ovid, XI 1-19, as cited by Jander). While the orchestra had at times been on the heavy side during more tender moments, Ozawa certainly knows how to kick up a storm and the BSO showed its strength and determination to wipe out the struggling seeker of lost love, much as Levin’s Steinway seemed disinclined to admit defeat.

The Second Piano Concerto was also given a magnificent performance. Levin’s playing was a model of classicism for this early Beethoven work, but never missed an opportunity to experiment with an illuminating nuance here, a highlight there. The combination of fluency and subtlety on piano was bracing, while the BSO played with a sunny disposition, making the performance of this work along with that of the fourth a life-affirming experience that will go down as one of the greatest accomplishments in the BSO’s history.