Pianist Max Levinson, Incurable Romantic

A cough-free audience is virtually unheard of in New York concert halls, but the other night I found myself, along with hundreds of others, hushed to the bone by the playing of a young American pianist named Max Levinson. I had heard Mr. Levinson, a recent graduate of Harvard College, on his debut CD, a beautifully thought-out program of Brahms, Schumann, Schönberg and Leon Kirchner that had impressed me for the unusual sensitivity and depth of the playing (N2K-10015). But today’s digital engineers could make me sound like Rubinstein, and I wondered how well the magic of the recording studio would transfer to the woody barrens of Alice Tully Hall.

“Unassuming” may be an overstatement in describing Mr. Levinson’s entrance: dark-haired, long-armed and slightly built, he came on stage in an olive-colored business suit, white shirt and busy tie, looking like he might be on his way to a tax audit. But with the annunciatory first bar of Schubert’s Fantasy in C major (“The Wanderer”), he plunged the audience into another world of roiling romanticism from which there was no escape.

Plunged is not the right word for it. You can often tell everything about a pianist by the way he strikes that first note. In Mr. Levinson’s case, the note resonated with a kind of pearly glow which signaled that we were in for an evening of unusual tonal beauty. “The Wanderer” is the perfect showpiece for Wunderkinder, surging as it does with some of Schubert’s most ardent declarations of longing and gaiety. It invites a certain heedlessness, but played too impetuously, it can sail right out the window.

Fleet but never rushed, vibrant but never gaudy in its application of color, Mr. Levinson’s playing caught the tender alertness that distinguishes Schubert’s flights into the perilous landscapes of his imagination. Like Sviatoslav Richter-but with more lightness of spirit-Mr. Levinson made every phrase, every note, say something. And like the late Russian giant, he grounded the music’s “push and pull” with an unobtrusive mastery of pedaling, a skill that is rarely demonstrated by today’s younger pianists.

From the dot-connected classicism of Schubert to the elliptical atonality of Leon Kirchner might seem a jarring leap, but Mr. Levinson made the American composer’s Five Pieces for Piano, from 1987, feel like an inevitable descendant of the 19th century. These short works are really songs without words, having been adapted from a song cycle of Emily Dickinson poems. Like their literary source, they burst with concentrated, delicately sculpted observations and questions, curtailed by wistful recognitions of life’s temporality. That Mr. Levinson is a singer at heart-and which great pianist isn’t?-was clear from the gentle, musing spirit that showed in even the most explosive moments.

Mr. Levinson devoted the second half of the program to Chopin’s Twenty-Four Preludes, a choice that was as daring for their overfamiliarity as for the stamina they demand. Chopin’s explorations of the full set of major and minor keys are really character pieces that must be caught, as it were, on the fly. They require the ability to capture the astonishing fullness of each miniature, sometimes in no more than a few seconds; it’s like having to execute a series of minutely detailed engravings of landscapes seen from a moving train. And, of course, the real Chopin landscapes are intellectual and emotional-his Preludes are Romanticism’s most distilled fusions of thought and feeling.

What moved me most about Mr. Levinson’s gripping account of them was the sense that, while he certainly wasn’t playing the Preludes for the first time, he was hearing them for the first time. There is nothing reconsidered-nothing examined-about his playing; in his hands, Chopin’s mercurial creations seemed newborn. For good measure, Mr. Levinson led his encores by polishing the most familiar Chopin chestnut of all-the Nocturne in E flat-and he finished the evening with a soulful reading of one of George Gershwin’s preludes, generating a depth of silence in the audience that couldn’t have been more eloquent.

I was curious to know more about this young man, whose freshness and poetic approach reminded me of my favorite Chopin pianist, the late Dinu Lipatti. So I arranged to meet him the following morning for breakfast before his midday flight for a concert in Tokyo. It was 8:30 A.M. and Mr. Levinson had obviously had a big night, but behind his sleepy-eyed manner was the openness and internal alertness I had felt so keenly in his playing.

Over a bowl of fresh fruit (no toast, no coffee), Mr. Levinson, 26, told me that he had grown up in Los Angeles in a family that was not notably musical-although his father, an advertising executive, had “played in a rock band in Berkeley.” His brilliance at the piano is proof of the importance of music education in the schools; in his case, it was a superb music program at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica that got him started-as well, he said, as the proximity of a well-stocked classical recordings outlet, the Record Surplus in West L.A.

Encouraged but not “pushed” by his parents, he knew by the age of 10 that he wanted to be a concert pianist; except for a consuming interest in the L.A. Lakers and video games, “it was all music.” He studied with Aube Tzerko, a pupil of Artur Schnabel, from whom he got a thorough grounding in the German-Austrian meat-and-potatoes of the classical repertoire, from Haydn to Brahms. Although his friends were all heading off to conservatories after high school, he decided on a liberal-arts education.

Mr. Levinson, who currently serves as artist in residence at Harvard’s Lowell House, said, “Explaining how my major in English literature affected my playing is tricky. But studying Shakespeare and learning about Romanticism in the larger sense helped me see what the music was all about.” He added, laughing, “it’s probably useful to know that all those guys in the 19th century were on drugs.”

Having a social life outside the typical music student’s hothouse bolstered his ambitions. “Suddenly,” he said, “I was with friends who wanted to be a doctor or on Wall Street, and I had to ask myself why I wanted to do something like this. It was when my friends came to hear me that I realized they were there because my playing moved them.”

That sort of old-fashioned rationale for pursuing so difficult a life isn’t often heard from today’s hardheaded young music professionals, and it led me to ask Mr. Levinson who among today’s piano greats he especially admired. Without hesitation, he answered, “Martha Argerich and Radu Lupu.” That’s like hearing a young basketball player say that he emulates the explosiveness of Michael Jordan, on the one hand, and the searching probity of John Stockton, on the other. But it occurred to me that Mr. Levinson’s choices were very much in keeping with the thoughtful urgency-the well-tempered fire-of his own playing. (His earlier idols, he said, had been two other extremists, Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould.)

For a more knowing opinion, I called up the distinguished Irish pianist John O’Conor, who chaired the jury at the 1997 Guardian Dublin International Piano Competition, where Mr. Levinson took first prize. Mr. O’Conor said that he had first heard the young pianist at an earlier international competition in Leeds, where he had failed to get past the second round after suffering a memory glitch in No. 17 of the Chopin Preludes that caused him to skip from page 1 to page 4. “He managed the whole thing beautifully,” Mr. O’Conor said, “and I thought, here’s by far the most interesting young pianist of the group. But it was too much for one Austrian member of the jury, and Max was dropped.”

In Dublin last year, Mr. O’Conor heard Mr. Levinson again, and this time he was determined that the young American win. “He’s an artist,” said Mr. O’Conor. “I’m tired of hearing typewriters-all those tickety-tickety young pianists who are being turned out. When Max plays, he’s always saying something. “

Pianist Max Levinson, Incurable Romantic