WORKS: Quintet for Piano and Wind, K452. Horn Sonata, Op. 17; Quintet for Piano and Wind, Op. 16
PERFORMER: Robert Levin (fortepiano); Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble
CATALOGUE NO: 455 994-2
Reliable report has it that on one occasion when Beethoven played his Op. 16 Quintet he amused himself by improvising at a fermata in the finale for so long that the wind players didn’t know when to come in again. Robert Levin doesn’t go that far, but he does provide his own stylish lead-in at that point, as well as between the slow introduction and the Allegro of the opening movement. So far so good; and I should say at once that I found these performances, with their very high level of playing, absolutely stimulating.
However, without wanting to exaggerate its importance, there is one aspect of Levin’s interpretations with which I take issue, and it concerns the question of embellishments. It is true that when Beethoven arranged his quintet for piano and strings, he took advantage of the viola’s greater flexibility over the horn, and radically altered the melodic contour of an episode in the slow movement; but to ornament the main themes of a sonata-allegro when the exposition is repeated, as Levin does in both these works, is another matter altogether – particularly when we consider how many pages of sketches it took Beethoven before he was satisfied with his material. The embellishments may be discreet here, but they almost inevitably trivialise the music.
This is, however, a very minor complaint. Those who prefer these pieces played on modern instruments will find much to enjoy in Murray Perahia’s performances; for myself, I wouldn’t want to be without this new version. Misha Donat