Robert Levin: Unveiling Mozart’s Creative Spirit

by Madonna

Picture the atmosphere at the Mehlgrube casino in Vienna on February 11, 1785. The bustling activity of patrons dining on the ground floor and engaging in games on adjacent tables contrasted with the anticipation of an audience packed with aristocrats, eagerly awaiting a concert in the hall above.

The focal point of the evening was the premiere of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor (K466), with the composer himself at the piano. While historical accounts depict the high expectations preceding Mozart’s performances in Vienna, the suspense leading up to this particular event was palpable. On the morning of the concert, orchestral parts were still being copied, leaving little time for rehearsal.


“One of the remarkable aspects to note is the minimal rehearsal time,” explains Robert Levin, a fortepianist and authority on period performance practice. Levin’s extensive recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos with the Academy of Ancient Music reflect his dedication to capturing the essence of Mozart’s improvisational spirit.


Accounts from Leopold Mozart, the composer’s father, describe the concert as “magnificent,” despite the orchestra having to oversee last-minute copying of parts. This sense of spontaneity and urgency is reflected in surviving manuscripts, where lightly sketched passages suggest Mozart may have improvised sections during performance.


Levin’s approach to Mozart’s concertos embraces this sense of adventure, departing from the published score to introduce unexpected decorations and imaginative flourishes. His 30-year journey culminates in the final volume of recordings, featuring Mozart’s last concerto, No. 27 in B flat (K595).

This landmark cycle sets new standards for its infectious spontaneity and comprehensive coverage of Mozart’s repertoire. Levin’s illustrious career, which includes teaching at Harvard University and producing completions of works by Bach and Mozart, exemplifies his dedication to both scholarship and performance.

Inspiration for the recordings arose from a British television series on improvisation, prompting Levin to showcase Mozart’s improvisational prowess alongside diverse musical genres. Drawing parallels between jazz improvisation and Mozart’s creative process, Levin’s performances blur the lines between tradition and innovation.

Over the years, Levin’s courage in improvisation has grown, albeit accompanied by the inevitable nervousness before each cadenza. Yet, it is this willingness to embrace risk and share in the creative impulse that defines Levin’s interpretation of Mozart’s timeless masterpieces.

As the final notes fade and Levin takes his bow, his performances stand as a testament to Mozart’s restless creativity and enduring legacy. Through his artistry, Levin invites audiences to experience Mozart’s music with fresh ears, imbued with the spirit of improvisation and discovery.


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