Daniel Levy is a sensitive yet assertive musician who is profoundly committed to his art. He is concerned about music in all aspects – its spiritual, philosophical, and therapeutic properties as well as its performance and recording. He is concerned about the future of music and has strong opinions about the role of not only musicians but also audiences.
Levy’s growing number of recordings for Edelweiss Emission have attracted much critical acclaim. His recording (with baritone Wolfgang Holzmair) of Schumann’s Lieder on Poems by Heine, Lenau and Geibel was described by one critic in these terms: “It would be hard to find a more beautiful version… this appealing disc is faultlessly recorded”. One reviewer said of his Chopin Nocturnes interpretations: “Daniel Levy’s touch is so profound, it allows his piano playing to sing with great freedom of expression”. Another critic chose as his most memorable recording of the year Levy’s readings of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann op.9, with three Intermezzi, op.117; and six Klavierstücke, op.118. Of this recording, Fanfare’s own critic, John Wiser said, “Daniel Levy seems a pianist of an older generation than he actually belongs to, fond of slowish tempos but always firmly in charge of rhythmic outline. The variation set is far better organised than the only other recording with which I am well acquainted…. Strongly recommended”.
Having heard eight of Levy’s recordings, I would endorse all of the above remarks and add that I have rarely heard piano playing of such deep integrity. There is nowhere any evidence of the pianist imposing mannerisms over any composer’s compositions.
Daniel Levy is one of those rare, conscientious artists who are humbly committed to serving composers and communicating their works honestly to an audience.
Levy is of medium height and build, youthful-looking, tanned, and dark-eyed. When I talked with him in a quiet North London café, quite close to the famous EMI Abbey Road studios, he spoke quietly but earnestly with surprisingly few gesticulations considering the twenty years he lived in Venice. Levy currently lives in London. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Daniel levy took to his instrument early. At four years old he was improvising on the family piano and composing little pieces for his grandmother, mother, and cousin which he retained and played for them again and again.
By the age of six, these were forgotten and he had moved on to formal studies. Later, he studied with Vincenzo Scaramuzza and Ana Gelber, who were creating a realist school of piano in Argentina. (Scaramuzza had come to South America from the Liszt School of Piano in Naples).
From the Scaramuzza method, Levy developed his gentle, serene legato style. “We were encouraged to use the piano as a voice, bearing in mind that it is a percussion as well as a string instrument”, he explained. “But, in the main, the idea is to reflect the inflections of the voices so that the piano sings. I believe it is possible to make the instrument sing through all of its register – not only in terms of melody. I like the idea of the piano as a really powerful instrument but only in the sense of the power, capacity, and weight of the voice.”
Levy is known as one of the most important exponents of the Scaramuzza and Gelber school, and he has won the most important piano competitions in Latin America. He avoids some modern pianos that have a harsh quality. He prefers the Steinways that were made some twenty years ago.
“They have a very powerful sound, the percussive element is there when it is needed, but most of all they enable you to express that singing line I mentioned. I have played a Bösendorfer piano with its extra octave for some repertoire, like Wagner transcriptions, for instance; when I want the piano to sound something like an orchestra. I also like the Bechstein sound – that is, of the older Bechsteins: they were really powerful too. I admire those historic recordings made by Backhaus on a Bechstein. They were magnificent, but nowadays it’s difficult to find a really good Bechstein. But it’s not just the instrument in itself that matters but rather your idea of its sound and the way you express music through that sound.”
Levy’s concert career has taken him to Italy, France, Switzerland, and Spain as well as the United Kingdom and America. His repertoire extends from the classical composers – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven – through to Scriabin and the French Impressionists by way of Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Grieg, and Brahms.
One of his most important projects is to record the complete piano works of Schumann. The recording, referred to above, of the Fantasie in C Major is the first volume in the series which he anticipated will stretch over fifteen CDs and will take a few years to complete. He has already recorded five volumes in the series. The second volume, for release in May this year, will include the Three Romances, op.28; Allegro, op.8; and the Sonata in F# Minor, op.11.
I asked Levy what had drawn him to Schumann. “It is not only the lyrical element of the music which I admire but also the richness and complexity of the music. Schumann’s language is quite different from his contemporaries.
His textures are often difficult and there is always a sense of polyphony there; but the real difficulty is not so much technical as interpretative – in conveying the emotional and otherworldly qualities in the music. I prefer Schumann’s music to be played, as it was in his days, in a lighter way, that is lighter in expression – but by no means light in meaning.
“Personally, I think there is so much to rediscover in Schumann and so much still to be played and recorded. Even in the case of his piano music, at least three-quarters of his works are either unknown or rarely played. I would hesitate to say that they are difficult to play in public, but a different technique and style of interpretation is required than that for Chopin or Liszt, or even Beethoven. With Schumann, you need to know a lot about the man and his music in order to bring something special to the keyboard so that you can communicate it accurately to the audience. Some of Schumann’s works can be seen as remarkably modern, with links to contemporary ideas. Schumann is a complete man and as such he very much appeals to me.”
Levy is keen to avoid the trap of conventional programming for his recordings. In his complete Schumann series, he will include unknown or little-known Schumann pieces alongside well-loved favorites such as Kreisleriana, Kinderszenen, and Carnaval. He is also planning a novel new Beethoven series that will avoid the usual hackneyed programming ideas. “I am interested in the concept of tonality in respect of Beethoven’s piano music”, he explained.
“I will start with C Major and that album will comprise Sonata op.2, no.3; and Sonata, op.53 (‘Waldstein’). Then I will move on to C Minor and record first – Beethoven’s Sonata, op.10, no.1; plus the Sonata, op.13 (‘Pathétique’) and, secondly – the Sonata, op.111; with the C# Minor Sonata, op.27, no.2 (‘Moonlight’).
Levy is also very fastidious about the environments in which he records. Not for him the conventional arid sorroundings of modern recording studios. Instead, he prefers the inspiration of natural, pleasant locations – ideally the type that might have been used for public recitals in the days when the compositions he plays were written, locations that are sympathetic, and that are as ideal as possible in terms of ambience and natural reverberation. “The recording session presents its own special difficulties”, Levy remarked. “Very often the hall is booked only for the specific time of the recording. You do not have the opportunity to prepare for your performance in the way that you would normally do before a concert; there are too many special considerations: the setting up of the recording apparatus, the pressure, temperature, humidity – all these affect the music. So intense preparation of the pieces to be recorded is clearly essential before arrival.”
It is noticeable that no producer is credited on any of his Edelweiss Emission recordings – only the engineers, Silvia and Giovanni Melloncelli, both of whom Levy uses habitually. They have formed a unique working partnership so that they can anticipate each other’s needs. “One of them will also act as producer”, explained Daniel levy. “I am keen on long takes and minimum patching, I want the music to sound natural and spontaneous – not like a jigsaw of patches.”
Levy has many interests outside music, many of which have served to heighten his perception of life and the importance of sound and music. He has studied philosophy and the comparative religions of the East and West. He complemented his musical studies by acquiring knowledge about, and the perception of, the deeper significance of musical cultures outside Europe. He has produced seminars, courses, and conferences and organized three international exhibitions of musical instruments from Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.
Top conductors are tempted by high fees to take on too many assignments, they do not stay in one place and cultivate one orchestra so that it sings; soloists, too, may be seduced by the glamour of the publicity machine so that they are in danger of believing in their own self-importance and imposing themselves before the music. They have tended to loose that vital bridge of communication to convey the spirit of a composer’s music to audiences. Recordings, in great quantities, tumble over each other month by month so that they are almost regarded as consumer disposables. And audiences have become jaded; so often they arrive at a concert or recital tired, and only recover in time to really listen to a second or third movement of a work. We need to conceive new ways of listening too, to ensure an audience is prepared, relaxed, and refreshed so that they are receptive to hear music played with conviction so that the spirit of the music, the composer’s message, crosses the bridge of communication.”
If the future of music is in the hands of musicians like Daniel Levy, then, personally, I do not think there is much to worry about.
Fanfare Magazine, USA