Notes and Editorial Reviews
Beth Levin (pn)
CENTAUR 902071 (60:38)
It was just in the last issue that I reviewed Paul Lewis’s fine account of Beethoven’s
, and I notice here in Beth Levin’s traversal of the theme and 33 variations a fairly significant discrepancy in the timing—60:38 vs. 52:46 for Lewis. That’s almost eight minutes slower (7:52, to be exact), or a difference of six percent. What could account for this disparity?
Most of the variations have both their first and second halves repeated. Occasionally, as in variation 2, a repeat is indicated only for the second half, while in variation 5, a repeat is indicated only for the first half. Then there are variations like 10 and 12 with no repeats in either half. Both Lewis and Levin observe Beethoven’s instructions. So, the difference in timings must lie elsewhere.
To unravel the mystery, I interrogated two other recordings of the piece I have—Alfred Brendel’s 1988 Philips account and Maurizio Pollini’s 1998 Deutsche Grammophon performance. Both are closer to Lewis than they are to Levin. In fact, at 50:08, Pollini shaves 2:38 off of Lewis’s 52:46. Not surprisingly, Lewis, who studied with Brendel, lags behind his teacher’s 52:36 by only 10 seconds.
A consensus begins to emerge. Performances of Beethoven’s
seem to average around 51:50. Obviously, if I used a larger sampling of recordings, this number could be skewed to the fast or slow side by one or another extreme case. I did not, for example, plug Levin’s timing into this calculation. When I do, the average goes up to around 54 minutes.
The reason for all these computations is that until I received Levin’s CD for review, I wasn’t familiar with the pianist. So I wanted to see if what Peter Burwasser said about her
32:3 panned out. “Tempos are deliberate,” he noted, “sometimes to the extreme.” I wouldn’t characterize Levin’s tempo in any given variation as extreme, but over the course of nearly an hour, her unhurried approach does have a cumulative effect. Ten seconds here, 15 there, and before you know it, it adds up to minutes, nearly eight of them in fact.
This by no means puts Levin’s
out of court. What I liked about Lewis’s reading was his avoidance of the “this is a great and solemn work” syndrome. Great it may be, but there’s nothing solemn about it. Much of the work is Beethoven in slapstick mode, and Lewis, like Brendel, was willing to play the March Hare to Beethoven’s Mad Hatter.
Levin’s more leisurely gambol is more like Alice’s attempt to make logical sense of her surroundings and predicament and, in so doing, she gains insight into the better natures and motivations of the story’s characters—i.e., variations—and ultimately into her own strengths and weaknesses.
Levin is a student of Rudolf Serkin, Leonard Shure, and Dorothy Taubman. Unfortunately, I don’t have Serkin’s 1957 Marlboro
, but with a little research, I was able to ascertain that his timing for that performance is 50:55, which is a bit slower than Pollini’s but faster than either Brendel’s or Lewis’s. Unlike Lewis, however, who obviously remained close to his teacher, Levin departs quite dramatically from hers. Her choices, however, are strictly interpretive and in no way a reflection of a deficit in technique. Born in 1950, she still enjoys an active career, though a very slim discography suggests she’s not been very active in the recording studio. This plus her abovementioned Bach
and a mixed recital of Schubert, Liszt, Moszkowksi, and others are the only three CDs I find listed for her.
is well played and, given that she presents the work from a different and personal perspective that is very much her own, I’m comfortable recommending this release, recorded in 2009 at Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, not necessarily as a first and only choice for this late Beethoven opus, but definitely as a complementary version to others you may already have.
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