An Ear for Mozart’s Dialect: Improvising with Robert Levin.

by Bernard D. Sherman

Reprinted from Stagebill, December, 1999. Bernard D. Sherman’s articles appear in The New York Times and many other national and international publications; his books include Inside Early Music (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Performing Brahms (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).


The orchestra’s favorite part of a concerto, someone once joked, is the cadenza – the section at the end of a movement when the orchestra stops playing and the soloist is on his own for a minute or two. But some listeners in the audience can’t wait for the “real” music to start again, when the orchestra gets back to work.

Why do these listeners get impatient? Perhaps because the cadenza rarely lives up to what it’s supposed to be – a fantasy that sounds improvised, with enough of the unexpected to keep you on the edge of your seat. Nowadays, in a Mozart concerto, most pianists play a cadenza that was composed well ahead of time (sometimes by Mozart for a student, sometimes by someone more recent). Too often, it’s obvious that everything was planned in advance.

But not when the pianist is Robert Levin. Like Mozart himself in concerts, Levin makes up his own cadenzas on the spot. Hearing him plunge in after the orchestra stops is like watching someone walk a tightrope without a net. In a Levin cadenza, anything can happen.

Not absolutely anything, however: it’s all in the style of Mozart. Levin will tell you that learning to improvise cadenzas took him years, because he was developing “an ear for Mozart’s dialect.” He adds, “It’s one thing to be able to describe what makes Mozart’s chord changes and melodic contours what they are. But it’s another thing to be able to explore around the keyboard while staying within his unique dialect. For Mozart this amazing language was second nature, but for us it will never be that easy.”

Levin, like Aaron Copland and Elliot Carter, studied musical composition in Paris with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. He learned to speak fluent Mozart by completing some of the composer’s unfinished works, and reconstructing lost ones. (Levin’s most famous completion is of the Mozart Requiem; it’s recorded on Telarc CD 804 and Hanssler 98.146.) Eventually, Levin says, “I began to make certain kinds of intuitive connections that worked, and that felt like genuine Mozart.” From there he went on to improvising in Mozart performances – which means taking big risks “without having the option of canceling a line.”

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