by Steve Hicken

It’s not always easy to tell if a recital or album of concert music is about the performer or about the music. To be completely honest about it, as a composer I tend to favor those programs that lean more toward being about the music. The best, in my experience, achieve balance—those programs where the music and performer illuminate each other throughout.

Bright Circle, Beth Levin’s new disc of romantic piano music (get it from Amazon), is just such a program. First, Ms. Levin’s playing is full of life, color, and expression. Her technique is abundant, yet it never gets in the way of the music itself. Her ability to project both drama and lyricism in a telling manner serves her well in this program of music by Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, and David Del Tredici. The album’s program notes emphasize a link between these pieces—that they borrow from earlier sources. In the case of Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24, the borrowing is clearly stated right in the piece’s title. And Del Tredici’s piece, Ode to Music, is based in part on a Schubert song. Schubert’s Sonata 20 in A rounds out the disc.

I hear a much deeper link between these pieces, though, and it’s brought out in Ms. Levin’s probing performances. All three pieces, despite structural values that are very different, one from another, juxtapose passages of power, volume, virtuosity, and complexity with passages of song-like lyricism, calm, and simplicity. I found it fascinating to hear these juxtapositions in different musical contexts, and Ms. Levin projects them expressively. The sound on this release is clear and highly detailed, serving the music extremely well.

Stream Bright Circle on Spotify:

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