Daniel Levy has been the subject of two previous Fanfare articles, by Ian Lace and, most recently, Bernard Jacobson. His thoughtful and independent career is naturally interesting to the Fanfare community. Levy, born and educated in Argentina in a Moroccan Sephardic family, spent his formative years in Italy, and now resides in London. His label, Edelweiss, is embarking on a major series in honor of his now mature career, with the “Daniel Levy Edition.” His expansive and illuminating comments on his life in music required little prompting.
P.B.: Please tell me about your musical background. Who were your early influences and important teachers, and why?
D.L.: At the age of four, I started listening to the Beethoven symphonies by Toscanini and Eric Kleiber. And I was very familiar with recordings by Heifetz, Horowitz, and Arrau. There was a very interesting collection of 78-rpm records at my grandmother’s house. I took extreme care not to scratch these fragile discs, which had an impressive potential of something known and familiar to me. In my house, there was a piano even before I was born, as both my parents were music lovers. A cousin of mine was a student of Vincenzo Scaramuzza, the renowned piano teacher, and it was also on her piano that I started to explore sound, remaining close to the keyboard for hours and listening to her while she worked hard on the “Waldstein” Sonata and Chopin’s scherzos.
She became one of my first teachers, and my favorite game with her was to go to the other corner of the room, without looking at the piano, and just listen to her playing separated keys and then chords and I would have to tell her if it was a C or a D and how the chord was composed. Even before studying music, I started to improvise, and I memorized certain improvisations and tunes that I dedicated to some of my family members As a wonderful culmination of this period my grandmother gave me a gift, a recording of Bach’s The Art of the Fugue interpreted by Gustav Leonhardt (on the harpsichord) in two 33-rpm discs, which for a twelve-year-old boy – who was a big Bach fan – was just like a treasure, full of mystery. Early influences stemmed from a particularly devoted way of listening and from the convergence in Buenos Aires, at the Teatro Colón and other centers of such intense musical activity as performances by Claudio Arrau, I Musici, Wagner Tethralogy, Karl Richter, New York Pro Musica, the Budapest Quartet, Wilhelm Kempff, etc. In a way, all these extraordinary artists were my first teachers in the world of music.
I had the privilege to learn piano with both Vincenzo Scaramuzza, whose experience came from one of Liszt’s disciples in Naples, and Ana Gelber, one of his most important students. After them, I worked with Sergio Lorenzi, a former member of the Chigiano Quintet, a true master in chamber music, which is my closest and most vital passion because of its intimacy. I believe it is the heart of music’s secrets. The school of chamber music is a school of life experiences. It goes beyond just being a soloist, which is one of the problems and defects of a pianist. Another very important teacher and human being to me was Maria Tipo, to whom I will always be grateful, as she directly transmitted to me what devotion to Bach is. Her Scarlatti was superb, as well as her brilliance and touch for Mozart. These people are a part of my life, and their approach to music was something essential and timeless.
Thanking is the human way to return what you have received, and I thank them all and so many others that are in my heart. The sense of humanity, ethics, and beauty are central to the role of music and musicians in the world, and this is what impressed me – a lot more than finger ability, which they all had plenty of, but just as a medium for the former.
P.B.: What are the differences and similarities between Argentinean and Italian musical culture? How are they reflected in your music-making?
D.L.: In Argentina, there was a confluence of European music teachers, mainly from Italy, Germany, and even from Russia, the center being Buenos Aires. In Italy, besides Milan and Rome, there are a lot of important musical centers. I cannot talk about similarities. The Italian culture, full of art in each part of that wonderful country, is so powerful that it polarizes all the attention. Its tradition is so strong, especially in ancient, Baroque, and opera music that it influenced all the great composers who loved Italy and its music. Maybe Argentina is more international, without being conditioned by such important cultural and historical patterns as it is in Italy.
In my music-making, I see reflected my experience in Venice, a city where I lived for more than 20 years. Its atmosphere of beauty and its deep roots are so inspiring that I always feel its spirit present in my playing; while from Argentina what I feel is more radiantly inspiring is the country’s strength and sense of creativity.
P.B.: Schumann and Schubert seem to have a central place in your musical life. These composers, I think, did not generally write music that is outwardly brilliant, and often the difficulties are much more apparent to the pianist than to the listener. Do you agree? Why is this music so important to you?
D.L.: I play music by so many other composers. When I started to record Schumann’s integral works for piano, a few possibly thought that it might be a specialization of mine, something I absolutely avoid. It is true that in the musical language of Schumann and Schubert one can find the ideals of the best of human beings and aesthetics close to life. This inspires me to be in sympathy with them, admiring their vision, intuition, and wisdom.
My concept of what appears to be – or is – difficult has changed completely over the last 15 years. It is really difficult to evoke the magic of a masterwork and be able to breathe with it. People, listeners, musicians must not be more impressed by mere acrobatics or noises at incredible speeds. For that we have got circuses and Formula One. In my opinion, virtuosity is to play pianissimo, to convey the sense of a phrase, to illuminate the polyphonic sense of a piece, to let your instrument talk to the other instruments and sometimes to manifest the prayer that is present in a Beethoven concerto’s Adagio. The types of difficulties you can find in a Schubert sonata and in Liszt’s Transcendental studies or in a Rachmaninoff or Liszt concerto are quite different.
In Schumann, the musical content is predominant, and it could therefore sound easier to the audience. The Third Sonata in F Minor, the Presto (first version) of the Second Sonata, the Allegro op. 8, Gesange der Frühe, and so on, are very difficult, as in fact they sound. But when you listen to what they had to say, you will be able to see that it is more relevant than the “feux d’artifice.” The same happens with Brahms.
P.B.: I have not read your books (except for some short passages), but I wonder how you might respond to the criticism that it is enough to simply let the music speak for itself, without words? Having asked that, I wonder how your philosophy and religious studies interact with your music, or is this simply a case of these aspects of your humanity naturally reflected in your music-making?
D.L.: My books are not about music, in the sense that I don’t try to explain or translate something which already possesses its own language. This is what often happens with some musicologists who examine music as if it were an object in a laboratory, using a microscope to dissect it.
In my writing, I manifest experiences and I’m very interested in the effects of sound and its origin. It is never possible to replace a musical experience with a description or narration. On the other side – and this comes from my own experiences in philosophical and religious studies – word is also sound, and sometimes there is music in real poetry.
I was always fascinated by the fact that the first music theoreticians in India and Greece were also grammarians, and their view was that language in its primordial state is music, and from that derives the spoken word and its vital significance. Maybe in instrumental music we are too used to separating these realities. Sound, rhythm, melody, and harmony are tools – vibrations and intuitions that man uses to express a state of consciousness that “word” cannot even pierce. I believe we need to recuperate and recreate a new vision with a higher consideration of word and language, rediscovering the link between these arts that descend from sound.
When it comes to my music-making, I try to expand from discursive speaking to a pure musical world with its reasons and laws. The interaction comes when I assume the reality of Beethoven’s assertion of music as the highest philosophy, or Socrates declaring that he was a musician. At that point everything interacts as a nucleus, leaving aside sides or corners of thought, participating more and more in the whole.
P.B.: I have not seen any contemporary music in your repertoire. Since you compose, I assume you have an interest in the music of our time. Unfortunately, I have not had the chance to hear any of this music, but I am curious about your thoughts on composing and on other new music.
D.L.: There’s not enough time and space for this interesting question. I haven’t recorded any contemporary music except the three original piano preludes by Astor Piazzolla. However, in my repertoire I do have Alban Berg and Schoenberg (Sonata and Klavierstücke). There are several reasons for this. One of them is that, very often, I prefer to listen to this type of music rather than play it. In contemporary music, I prefer some orchestral works to the piano ones I have come across so far.
I find it disorientating when modern composers try to write piano works, as their aesthetic sounds completely different when they compose for other instruments. Perhaps I don’t feel comfortable with mainly percussive effects in the piano or a distortion in the language used.
There are too many different approaches that are contemporary, making it difficult to distinguish it as a particular style, which is really nonexistent today. Neo-Classicism and neo-Romanticism could not find their own character. For a while, I was interested in approaches that viewed extra-European music combined with European, but it remained an intent, a hybrid task without completion.
Some of Nono’s Prometheus was a clear return to ancient concepts linked with space and architecture. In my personal work, I’m deepening the structure of Melos in its complete significance, and how in our time this is like a thread for perennial inspiration.
P.B.: I looked up three reviews that I wrote for Fanfare of your recordings (all favorable!). Several phrases and words come up more than once, such as “thoughtful”, “individualistic” and “deliberate”. I noted that in several cases, especially with Schubert, your tempos are slower than on most other recordings, although I could find nothing in the score to contradict your choices. Are my impressions accurate, in your opinion?
D.L.: Thank you for appreciating my playing. I find the listener’s impressions very important, because I see them as being the effect or projections of how they arrived to the listener in a determined instant. When I listen to myself playing, it is related to my own perception. That makes it difficult to say something not subjective.
I agree with your views about the thoughtfulness, my intention is never to be cold or dull. A lot of non-verbal thoughts are present in the best music, but so proportionate and creative that it provokes admiration even while I’m playing. I also agree about being deliberate, conscious but not calculating, pondering but not without impetuosity. I never try to lose my listening while I’m playing, but this never constrains me to stop or mull over the interpretation.
About being individualistic, I try to be sincere and do the best I can at that stage, never purposely trying to sound original, different, or arbitrary. But the fidelity to the text is always a subjective realization of what you listen to, and how its proportions, shades, and textures express themselves. Victor Zuckerkandl said that music is life in motion, and I completely agree. About the tempos: I think that the perception must be applied within the whole version. Sometimes it seems slower or faster, but in reality, it isn’t. It’s our own motion in relation to the music’s motion that makes the real tempo. It often happened with Arrau’s, Kempff’s, Knapperbusch’s, and Furtwaengler’s versions. I call it the “inner tempo.” Your impressions are accurate.
P.B.: Your new recording of the Schumann concerto with Fischer-Dieskau is very beautiful. Of course, it is not a surprise that this great singer is an excellent conductor, yet I was still impressed by how well matched you are with one another in matters of tone and interpretation. He seems very sensitive to your phrasing, or perhaps you to his, or both?
D.L.: My experience with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for whom my admiration is very deep both as a human being and as a musician of a tradition which is now disappearing, has left me with the perception of two people that are not thinking about themselves, but about sincerely serving music, with all the means available at that moment. Eventually the phrasing, tone, and interpretation go beyond our personalities and become one with the composer’s inspiration. More than following one another, we tried to breathe as one, letting our love for Schumann come through. He is sensitive, an excellent conductor; I really look forward to collaborating with him in new musical projects. We met heart to heart more than face to face.
P.B.: I think Fanfare readers would be interested in the origins of “Daniel Levy’s Edition.” Am I correct to say that it consists of both new and re-released recordings? What future releases are you especially excited about?
D.L.: It started with the idea of celebrating my 50 years in the music world (I’m fifty-five), but I was reluctant to present an edition just because of a date. When the edition, concert activity, seminars, and master classes found a center in the main task, that is “A Piano for Human Concord,” I was then happy to unite new and re-released recordings. There are a lot of new releases (maybe 10), some live performances from the 80s and previous Edelweiss recordings. I’m very excited about the Scriabin project, which will begin with 12 Etudes, op. 8, and 24 Preludes, op. 11; it will be released next year. I’m also looking forward to the Beethoven sonatas, tonally recorded, starting with those in C Major, C Minor, and C# Minor, and a CD that contains works by Granados, Albeníz, and Falla. It is all an amazing experience of the power of music. I am therefore grateful to everyone that has cooperated with the “Edition,” making it possible to reach so many souls with the voice of my beloved piano.
(Fanfare Magazine, USA)