Pianist Max Levinson had a very good year in 1997. At the age of 25, he brought home a major European piano award (the Guardian Dublin International Piano Competition) and released a fascinating recording on the funky jazz-to-classical label N2K Encoded Music. The Boston-based artist was beginning to attract positive commentary of the "on the threshold of greatness" sort. This year he won the very prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, a kind of young genius prize for up-and-coming musicians.
If the career award gives him a little professional breathing room to consolidate his many talents into a fully integrated musical personality, it will be a blessing for this highly intelligent performer. On Saturday in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, Levinson gave a bright, accomplished and well-thought-out recital, but there was a lingering sense that he is still on the threshold, that scattered threads of musicianship still need to be stitched together.
Levinson programmed Bartok's elusive but mesmerizing "Out of Doors" Suite beside Ravel's ultimate test of virtuoso ability, "Gaspard de la Nuit." Both are essentially collections of character pieces, the Bartok strangely impressionistic and often percussive, the Ravel a set of three giant miniatures with phantasmagoric themes.
Hearing them together yielded at least one insight. By the time of Bartok and Ravel, the nature of the character piece had changed radically since the 19th century. The form was no longer just about depicting things or events--a Venetian gondola or a peasant celebration--but rather about representing the way we hear. In "The Night's Music" from the Bartok suite, night sounds are captured in all their unpredictable, disordered and frightening chaos. Bartok creates a fabric of small noises above an eerie drone, which functions a bit like the listener's heartbeat. It reminds one how much we use sight to make sense of sound, and that at night the world doesn't just look different, it sounds fundamentally different as well. Ravel's "Le Gibet," a depiction of the gallows (or an imagined drama about what one finds there), uses a similar technique with curiously contrasting results.
Levinson thrives in this music, especially in meditative, inward passages. His control over densely expressionistic material is remarkable; in quiet, elongated passages, he never slights details of articulation. His personal involvement in shaping a simple, slow-moving melodic line creates a poetic and intimate intensity between performer and audience.
All of which contrasts starkly with his frequently absurd tempos. In Schumann's "Kreisleriana" he stormed through fast passages with impressive speed and dexterity, but entirely to the detriment of the music. Clarity, inner lines, shaping of accompanying figuration were all cast aside. And while he has an accomplished technique, it is not a transcendental technique; he seemed, at times, pushed to the edge and unnecessarily frantic. Passages in Ravel's "Ondine" and "Scarbo" became incoherent and hinted at technical difficulties (though there was, apparently, a stuck key to be contended with as well).
It is almost as if Levinson so exults in one end of the spectrum that he neglects the other. There are a multitude of shades and meanings in his interpretation of the telling details, but he has only one setting for the loud and fast: Loud and Fast. Consequently, the ability to build long, organic sweeps of drama is compromised. If he can tie together poetry and oratory, and find a deeper, fuller voice in forte passages, he may well be beyond the threshold of a major career before he's 30 years old.