By Daniel Barolsky (Beloit College)
In the winter of 1997 I first heard Ernst Levy’s 1956 recording of the Liszt B minor Piano Sonata in the studio of Ward Marston, whose eponymous label would later release a transfer of the performance onto CD. At that time—before I started graduate school—I had not yet developed any of the tools I now use to analyze or reflect on recorded performances, nor had I read and understood Levy’s own writings on the Liszt Sonata. But this first experience remains a vivid part of my memory—three moments in particular. Multiple re-listenings later, these three elements of the recorded performance still enchant me, drawing me into Levy’s aesthetic as an interpreter and into Liszt’s skill as a pianist-composer. They have continued to broaden my thinking about performers, interpretation, recordings, structure, analysis, form, tonality, listening, the body, and sound. Moreover, these three moments remind me, over two decades later, not only of how far we’ve come in the area of performance and analysis but, also, of our limits.
I remember laughing about the first observation: It was the sound of Levy’s fingernails clicking on the keys. (Listeners with better sound systems will hear the clicking more readily, especially at the faster sections.)
Maybe the microphones, placed by Peter Bartok in M.I.T.’s Kresge Hall, were particularly sensitive; or perhaps Levy was merely inattentive to manual care. Regardless, the rapid clicking remains a part of the recording and, thus, perpetually affects how I experience and remember the interpretation. It reminds me of Levy’s body (despite the disembodied nature of an LP or CD), of the “liveness” (even in a studio) of the performance, and of the “human-ness” of the performer—as Paul Sanden has argued with regard to Glenn Gould’s singing and the creaking of his famous chair.
Levy and Gould are performers whose recordings include noises that many perceive as extraneous. But they are not alone. The legacy of recordings, both recent and historical, contains the groans of Pablo Casals and Erroll Garner, the heavy breathing of Björk and Tom Waits, Jacqueline du Pré’s violent snapping of strings against the fingerboard, and the sliding of fingers by any number of guitarists—that engineers either could not or did not try to remove. And yet, these “noises” are often dismissed or ignored as irritating distractions by many scholars and critics who aspire to focus, instead, on a more pure or timeless understanding of the recorded events. The clicking encourages me to recognize the human-ness of Levy’s performance while also appreciating what sometimes feels like the superhuman character of his overwhelming interpretation.
The second moment comes immediately after a cascade of crashing octaves that heralds the return of Liszt’s second thematic subject. In this climactic yet fluid passage, Liszt suggests that the interpreter slow down and pause dramatically on the G of the predominant chord (note the ritenuto and fermata, which I’ve boxed, in the score below).
The subsequent F# octave appears and sounds, in the hands of many pianists, as a stark, harmonically unsupported, dominant. When it resolves in measure 600 to the glorious B major second theme, the low B, often blasted out, satisfies these tonal urges.
As I reflect on the first time I heard Levy play this passage, I remember being struck by his masterful control of time, texture, and momentum, his pushing and pulling of tempo and dynamics that kept me, as a listener, hypnotically engaged in the moment. To my ear, Levy’s performance blurs the formal boundary, re-shapes time, and even makes ambiguous the harmonic function. His F#s initially ring out as though preparing an unsubtle imperfect cadence. Yet in Levy’s rendering, when the B major melody arrives and the harmony resolves itself in the low bass, the resonance of the F#s persists without interruption, louder than the notes underneath. They neither complete the yearning of the dominant nor disrupt the B major arrival since, of course, they are subsumed within the tonic chord. Levy’s control of pedaling, dynamics, voicing and, most important, his intangible sense of timing, raise more questions than answers about whether we’ve arrived somewhere or are simply continuing onwards. Moreover, this performance reminds us—as John Rink has argued on more than one occasion—that any sense of perceived “structure” is determined, not just by the features in the score alone but also by performers’ thoughtful rendering.
(As I prepared this essay, I compared Levy’s performance of this moment to those of Martha Argerich, Mariam Batsashvili, Jorge Bolet, Arnaldo Cohen, Clifford Curzon, Jeanne-Marie Darré, Sidney Foster, Vladimir Horowitz, Lang Lang, Polina Leschenko, Raymond Lewenthal, Yundi Li, Mikhail Pletnev, Sviatoslav Richter, Fazil Say, Yuja Wang, and Andre Watts. ALL of these performances are fascinating and inspiring in their own right, and I would not want to suggest that one performance is better or more correct than the rest. I would encourage readers to explore how different pianists interpret this transitional passage. I find that it vividly reveals the artfully interpretative personality of the pianist, so varied are the ways each understands and renders this moment.)
The third, and perhaps most memorable, moment reimagines the materials that shape our perception of form. In 1950 Levy gave a lecture at the University of Chicago on the Liszt Sonata, a summary of which can be found in the book Levy co-wrote with Siegmund Levarie: Musical Morphology: A Discourse and Dictionary. Its organicist foundations resonate with nineteenth-century views of form and the evolution of sonata form from Beethoven to Liszt. Levy, unfortunately, never really talks about his own performances. However, his recorded performances of Brahms and Beethoven reflect his developmental conception of musical shape and formal processes. His performances of the Liszt sonata are similar, but hardly pedantically so. For a piece that lasts almost 30 minutes, Levy makes quite clear to me the recapitulatory significance of mm. 531-33, which repeat the theme in B minor that first occurs in mm. 30-32. This recapitulation, following an epic and momentum-building fugato (starting in m. 460), is one of the most dramatically prepared moments in Levy’s performance of the sonata.
When I first heard this moment in 1997, I understood neither the formal complexity of the sonata nor Levy’s theoretical views of form. And yet, I remember that, upon first hearing this moment in the performance, I jumped out of my chair. One might think that my response, while unknowing, reflected an almost intuitive understanding of this tonal and thematic return. But I would suggest that in some ways it’s just the opposite. What first pulled me into the performance (and remains to this day the driving force behind my experience of the moment) was not the memory of a theme from 500 measures or 19 minutes earlier or the harmonic arrival of B minor. Instead it was the momentary but complete dissolution of harmony as a driving force, the shift from a world of nineteenth-century tonality to an amorphous cloud of pure sound that I found so remarkable. Listen to how Levy holds down the sustaining pedal! Any sense of pitch and key in m. 533 is swallowed up in a noisy haze. The sonic ambiguity is only heightened by the descending notes that precede it, pounded out like canons by Levy in octaves (a traditional practice that some pianists still continue today even if some purists object). Only in the next measure, as Levy draws out the E#s in the left hand, do I begin, again, to regain my sense of harmonic direction.
For some, Levy’s crashing climax might merely reinforce Liszt’s structural narrative or, for more cynical critics, distract listeners from Liszt’s Sonata by drawing attention to the personality of the performer. But, for me, the memory of my first listen and, perhaps, my visceral reaction to this moment push me to think about and recognize some of the limits that confront musicians: the limits of the score as a representation of my listening experience, and also the limits of those analytic tools that struggle to navigate the relationship between pitch and sound. It is Levy’s momentary escape from the limiting domain of harmony and pitch (or, as Ligeti might have put it, its “disintegration”) and the performed exploration of differently sounding possibilities, unmarked in the score or in any analyses, that most vividly account for and confirm any sense of meaning that grounds my experience of this performance.
I’d like to thank Ward Marston, Cecilia Oinas, Nathan Pell, Anna Schmidt, Victoria Tzotzkova, and Yvonne Wu for their help and insight with this essay.
As always, comments are welcome. Share your thoughts below!