Robert Levin is both a pianist and musicologist, serving in the latter role as a teacher of composition, Mozart scholar, and writer of numerous articles on music. As a performer, he is most closely associated with the compositions of Mozart, which he plays on fortepiano in recordings, but usually on piano in concert. He has also completed several important compositions by Mozart, as well, most notably the Requiem. Beethoven has occupied a significant chunk of his repertory, too, Levin having recorded all the piano concertos. He has also been an advocate for modern composers, including Harbison and Denisov.
Despite his immense keyboard gifts as a child, he initially decided to primarily focus on composition, studying in New York with composer Stefan Wolpe from the 1957-1961. He then took piano instruction from Louis Martin over the next three years, also in New York City. Concurrent with this activity, Levin studied composition under Nadia Boulanger and piano with Alice Gaultier-Léon at the Fontainebleau Conservatoire Américain in France (1960-1964). It is remarkable that all this advanced training took place while Levin was still in high school. Levin went on to Harvard and following graduation, was appointed head of music theory at the Curtis Institute in 1968, upon the recommendation of Rudolf Serkin. Two years later, he took on a professorship at S.U.N.Y., Purchase, which he concurrently held until he departed his Curtis post in 1973. He would remain at Purchase until 1986, but again take a second position during his tenure there, this at the Fontainebleau Conservatoire, from 1979-1983, on the invitation of former teacher Boulanger. While Levin had been making impressive strides in his pedagogical profession, his keyboard career had advanced only modestly during the nearly two decades following his graduation from Harvard. He had given public concerts with reasonable frequency from childhood, but his first major appearance would not come until his Alice Tully Hall recital in 1987, after which he enjoyed a nearly meteoric rise. Yet Levin was hardly turning away from his teaching career at this point: he had accepted a post at the Freiburg Staatliche Hochschule für Musik the year before, holding the post until 1993. By that time, he had launched his recording career. The first issue in his highly praised Mozart fortepiano concerto series, with Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, was issued in 1994 on L'oiseau-Lyre. He had appeared in chamber music recordings as early as 1986 (with Kim Kashkashian on viola) and in the Mozart Concerto for Three Pianos with his friends Malcolm Bilson and Melvyn Tan. Levin's eighth release in his own Mozart concerto series came in early 2001. He has been widely praised for the performances, particularly for his imaginative, improvised cadenzas, a once-popular performance practice that some have credited him with restoring to tradition. Levin has also made a mark with his set of the five Beethoven piano concertos (also played on fortepiano), which he recorded between 1996 and 2000. His version of Mozart's Requiem was premiered in 1991 in Stuttgart at the European Music Festival, conducted by Helmuth Rilling. Perhaps Levin's most famous Mozart essay was his 1998 Who Wrote the Mozart Four-Wind Concertante? In 1993, Levin left his post in Freiburg and accepted a professorship at Harvard, where he served as a Dwight P. Robinson Jr. Professor of the Humanities.