Music, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Argentina, and (briefly) himself
Talking to Daniel Levy is an experience at once invigorating and reassuring. In a time too much dominated by publicity stunts, “big names,” and commerce taking precedence over art, it is good to be reminded that there is still an abundance of musicians who care more for music than for making a splash. Born in Buenos Aires in 1947, this subtle, gifted pianist creates an impression of calm and of deep seriousness. Three years ago, reviewing (in 21:2) his Edelweiss disc of Schubert’s G-Major Sonata and Impromptus op. 90, I praised equally his imagination and his technique, manifested in a refreshing unwillingness to hurry Schubert along, in a consummate command of the most taxing textures, and in lovely, crystalline tone. Now he is back with two discs of strikingly contrasted repertoire, in which he can be heard with two equally disparate and compelling collaborators.
Having heard them and formed an unequivocally favorable impression – see below – I eagerly accepted Joel Flegler’s suggestion of a telephone interview with the pianist in his London home. I don’t intend to repeat all the interesting material already to be found in an earlier interview with Ian Lace. If you look it up in 20:6, you will find ample evidence of a questing intellect and a strongly moral attitude to the musician’s role. It may be useful just to remind readers that Levy studied in Argentina with Vincenzo Scaramuzza and Ana Gelber, continued his studies in Florence, and lived in Venice for 20 years.
He has lived in London for the last seven. So I was keen to know how a musician with the strong Argentine roots evident from the second of these new discs has coped with so long an absence from his native country.
“I have always felt close to my country,” Levy responded, “and recently I have received enormous inspiration from Argentina. I travelled there two or three years ago, and gave performances with the Carmina Quartet. In the next years I will be appearing at the Teatro Colón with the Philharmonic. And all the time I am impressed by the concern that people have there for new things, and the determination to realize their ideas, often with limited funds. There is a kind of optimism such as you do not always find in Europe. You can see, too, that there has been a great deal of liberalization with the political changes of recent years-but culture was always going on, even before that.
“The music of the Argentine disc is intended, as you can see from the title, to evoke the soul of the country.
There is much of that in Ginastera, who also lived for years in Europe, and in Carlos Gardel, who is really the archetype of the Argentine tango and song styles. The Gardel piece that I play on the disc, El día que me quieras [The Day You Love Me], was originally a song; this is my own arrangement of it, which is very simple.”
I asked Levy about Astor Piazzolla, a later figure widely regarded as virtually the king of tango.”Contrabajísimo was played at his funeral, in 1991. What I’ve done in the recording is to combine part of the recording he made himself in 1984 on the bandoneón (an instrument like an accordion, but with only buttons, no keyboard) with an improvisation, which is really a homage to Piazzolla.
“I commented that the other Piazzolla pieces are by no means simplistic; the Tango, for instance (the first of the Three Preludes), is not dominated by any obvious tango rhythm. “No, well, Piazzolla was a more serious composer and a more complex one than one might think from his popular reputation.”
No less arresting than the reanimation of the late Piazzolla on the Argentine disc is the appearance, as conductor in the Brahms First Piano Concerto, of the great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Now no longer active as a singer, he has been making something of a second career as a narrator-or, I should say, a third career, for it must already be around 30 years since he started conducting. (I heard his successful English debut in that role at the Chichester Festival Theatre; the story that was going around London at the time had Fischer-Dieskau asking Otto Klemperer whether there would be any chance of his coming to the concert, and Klemperer replying, “I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it-I’ve been invited to sing Die Winterreise that evening!” There were also, in the mid 1970s, more than respectable Supraphon recordings under his baton of the Brahms Fourth Symphony and, with Josef Suk, of Berlioz’s Harold en Italie.) What was it like for Levy, I wondered, to perform with so eminent a figure? “It was a wonderful experience. I have the deepest admiration for him. He is a complete musician, without prejudices or limits. His conducting is simply the extension of his voice. And he is the most human collaborator, utterly understanding, though he certainly insists on what he wants from the orchestra, and he is not made happy very easily. We recorded the First Piano Concerto at the end of 1998. The Second Concerto was delayed by some health problems he was having. But there will eventually be the Second Concerto, as well as a Schumann disc with the Piano Concerto, the Introduction and Allegro, and the accompanied declamations Schumann wrote for speaker and piano.”
Though it may have been prying into trade secrets, I couldn’t resist asking Levy about the slow movement of the Brahms, in which the orchestral part flows so beautifully that I was almost sure Fischer-Dieskau must have beaten the meter in dotted half notes, rather than taking the easy but prosaic route of subdividing the beat. He confirmed that this was indeed the case. As for his own part in the performance, his constant emphasis as we talked was on the inner and intimate aspects of the music, and on its singing quality. I remarked on the exceptionally melodious sound of the passagework in the first movement. “Yes,” Levy replied, “the passagework goes on singing, and, when you play octaves in Brahms, they must sing in both voices. It is not like Liszt. With Brahms, my idea is to be very austere. Certainly it is easier to play impressively, but intimacy-that takes much concentration! And at the start of the second movement, for orchestra and piano, the task is maybe to pray, very humbly.”
In conclusion, I wondered what future recordings, apart from those already mentioned, might be expected from Levy. “There will be a disc of the Brahms cello sonatas, with Franco Maggio Ormezowski. I am doing a series of Beethoven sonatas, arranged not chronologically, but by tonality-with works of the same key grouped together, to throw light on the different aspects of one key. And there is a Schubert B flat Sonata on the way, coupled with the Moments musicaux.” To judge from Levy’s earlier Schubert disc, all of these, and particularly the last mentioned, are likely to be performances to treasure.
- BACH-BRAHMS Chaconne in D Minor for the left hand – Daniel Levy (pn); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, cond; Philharmonia O – EDELWEISS ED 1062 (67:38)
ALMA ARGENTINA – Daniel Levy (pn); Astor Piazzolla (bandoneón) and his Quintet – EDELWEISS ED 1058 (66:36)
- GUASTAVINO Las Presencias No.4: Mariana. Cantilena No. 4: El Ceibo. Bailecito. La Siesta-Three Preludes for Piano. Cantilena No. 10: La Casa. Tierra Linda.
- GINASTERA 3 Danzas Argentinas. Milonga.
- RAMIREZ Alfonsina y el mar.
- GARDEL El día que me quieras.
- PIAZZOLLA 3 Preludios. Contrabajísimo (click on Contrabajísimo to listen to its opening – 1 minute 14 sec. of piano intro).
The fluency of the Brahms Adagio, noted above, is the more impressive in that it coexists with a fairly slow tempo. All three movements, in fact, are taken at relatively leisurely speeds. Yet there is never the slightest lack of urgency or passion. Altogether, despite the wealth of competition, Levy’s account of the First Piano Concerto ranks with the very best, which for me means Moravec/Mata on Dorian, Moravec/Belohlávek on Supraphon, and Barenboim/Barbirolli on EMI, along with the more recent Andsnes/Rattle version also on EMI. Levy’s is Brahms playing of unaffected grandeur, dynamic and lyrical in equal measure, and marvelously unfazed by the music’s phenomenal technical demands. Fischer-Dieskau, too, is completely in control of his side of the proceedings, drawing some exceptionally refined and lucid textures from the Philharmonia, and in particular giving all the necessary weight to Brahms’s crucial bass line. And Brahms’s electrifying left-hand arrangement of the Ciacona from Bach’s D-Minor Violin Partita makes, exactly as Levy foresaw that it would, the ideal companion-piece in this stunning performance-his fingerwork is astonishing in its panache and sheer clarity, without ever degenerating into the merely facile.
Levy here throws as much light on Brahms as Brahms throws on Bach, and that is saying a lot. Producer Silvia Melloncelli, moreover, has achieved impeccable balance in the concerto, and glorious sound throughout, and there is a searching and sensitive album note by Marco Maria Tosolini.
The anthology of Argentine pieces on the other disc is exactly and etymologically that, having been put together, in the words of Levy’s charming introductory note, “like a multicoloured bouquet of wild flowers. It is the kind of music one selects to give loved ones.” There are ebullient pieces here, and dazzling ones, but the prevailing spirit is of a particularly affecting nostalgia. It is, Levy observes, “not a simple melancholy, or what might be called saudade or, in Europe, homesickness. It can be compared only with that state known by the German Romanticists as Sehnsucht, nostalgia of the infinite; something remote and intimate that can be perceived but not possessed. At the other extreme, the predominance of a sunny nature resounds as joy and energetic vitality.” The pieces by Carlos Guastavino, Ariel Ramirez, and Carlos Gardel offer the most immediate communion with their roots in Argentine folk music. Ginastera’s Three Argentine Dances and Milonga are in a sense more sophisticated, but this is still echt Argentiniana. It is beautifully played, and like everything else on these two discs expertly recorded. The second of the three dances is the irresistible Danza de la moza donosa (Dance of the Graceful Girl).Here, Levy’s slight spreading of the hands is a legitimate way of suggesting the guitar accompaniment to a melodic line that is implicit in the piano-writing. His tempo in this movement is faster than that taken by Santiago Rodriguez on a fine Elan disc devoted mostly to Ginastera’s piano music.The tempo of Levy’s compatriot, Barenboim, in his delightful Teldec collection, Tangos Among Friends, is a little faster again, though still a shade below the composer’s metronome marking. But I find all three performances, with their different emphases, thoroughly enjoyable, as are Rodriguez’s unstoppable and Levy’s more paragraphed hurtles through the following Dance of the Brigand Gaucho.
Such comparisons, in any case, hardly matter with a highly individual collection like Levy’s-and they are likely to seem even more irrelevant when you hear the 18th and last track on his disc, where the pianist’s limpid tone and deliciously indulgent phrasing interweave with the resurrected ghost of Piazzolla himself in a rêverie that is sheer magic.
By Bernard Jacobson
Fanfare Magazine, USA