In 2005 Robert Levin launched a Mozart sonata cycle for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, utilizing a modern copy of a Stein fortepiano circa 1777. The project never went further than Volume 1 and the first three sonatas. Fast forward to 2017 and 2018, when the acclaimed keyboard virtuoso set down the complete cycle, using the composer’s own fortepiano dating from around 1782. The instrument seems mellower compared to the Stein, yet its timbral differentiation between registers intensifies the composer’s harmonic subtleties and the inherent drama in strategically placed single bass notes. Trilled passages emerge with sonorous variety, while dynamic inflections unlock the instrument’s coloristic potential. The Salzburg Mozarteum Great Hall’s acoustics and ECM’s superb sonics don’t hurt either. More significantly, Levin imbues this repertoire with vibrant life and deep meaning at every turn, not to mention his astonishing embellishments on repeats.
For example, Levin characterizes each variation throughout the D major K. 264’s long final movement like scenes in a dramatic comedy, where the short end-of-cadence bass notes function as snide side comments or punch lines. In the C major K. 309’s opening Allegro con spirito, Levin emphasizes the music’s operatic nature by his mock-pompous handling of the opening unison phrase in contrast with the theme’s brisk and impulsive second part.
The great A minor K. 310 benefits from similar theatrical touches in the first movement, while Levin’s superb finger legato helps the central movement’s long cantabile lines take wing. Perhaps the “easy” C major K. 545 sounds slightly reserved next to Ronald Brautigam’s more shapely and spontaneous reading, yet what seasoned authority imbues Levin’s rippling and poised finger work in the B-flat K. 570’s opening Allegro.
Again, symphonic breadth and operatic pacing governs the specificity of Levin’s phrasing, balances between hands, and tempo adjustments in the C minor Fantasy K. 475 and Sonata K. 457. Some may warm to Levin’s dainty, cameo-like C major K. 330 Allegretto finale; here, however, Brautigam’s fleeter, more aggressive playing is more to my taste.
It took a few hearings for me to get used to the determination of Levin’s headlong A major K. 331 Rondo alla Turca, but the graceful, assiduously integrated first-movement Theme and Variations fell easily upon my jaded ears. Levin’s completions of three unfinished or fragmentary Mozart sonata movements are so convincingly idiomatic that you’d never be the wiser.
In short, Robert Levin’s Mozart sonata cycle is a testament to his painstaking yet practical scholarship, intelligent musicianship, and total command of the keyboard–qualities that also distinguish Roberto Prosseda’s modern instrument/period tuning cycle on Decca. Even if you already own one or two or more Mozart sonata cycles, make plenty of room for Levin’s insightful artistry. You won’t regret it.