Levitzki HMV APR

Mischa Levitzki (piano)
The Complete HMV Recordings
rec. 1927-33, London
APR 6043 [2 CDs: 153]

My introduction to Mischa Levitzki was some forty odd years ago by way of an International piano Archives LP (IPA114) that was a mix of his HMV and American Columbia discs. I recall being swept away by my first hearing of Chopin’s C minor Nocturne and delighted with Moszkowski’s la Jongleuse and Levitski’s own Valse in A op.2. Like his close contemporaries Vladimir Horowitz and Alexander Brailowsky he was born in the Kyiv area, specifically Krementchug where his parents, who were naturalised Americans, were on an extended visit. His pianistic credentials were excellent; first studies were in Warsaw with Alexander Michałowski then a scholarship at the Julliard School of Music with Sigismond Stojowski, a pupil of Louis Diémer and Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Finally he worked with Ernst von Dohnányi who broke his rule about teaching anyone under the age of sixteen for the young Levitzki. He began his career in Europe during the war years and eventually settled in America giving his début there in 1916. His recording career started in 1923 with American Columbia and several works laid down then appeared again in his HMV sessions. His final commercial discs were of a couple his own works recorded for Victor in 1938 but there are a few broadcasts including the second movement of Saint-Saëns G minor Concerto from 1935, a work that he performed that year with the Cleveland Orchestra. He may have gone on to record other large scale works such as the Beethoven and Mozart Concertos that he was playing in the late 1930s but a heart attack in 1941 ended his life; he was just 42.

As is often the case with early recordings most of the works recorded by Levitzki are shorter works often salon or encore type pieces though many are more substantial items amongst them. This seems to have been the way his recital programmes worked; a Sonata or extended work coupled with miniatures though his programmes were beginning to change with the mood of the age. Chopin was a favourite and everything here is played beautifully, with elegance and buoyancy of rhythm though the outer sections of the A flat polonaise are far too stiff and restrained, a trait that also inhabits the opening of the Mendelssohn Andante and rondo capriccioso. The Scherzo may lack some of the fantasy of Barere’s but he holds his own technically. Of the longer Chopin works he recorded the Ballade is the most successful with gorgeous tone and melodic playing as well as a raw passion in its ultimate pages that he didn’t always allow into his playing. Two of the three Chopin préludes are repeated; the first in C major and the filigree penultimate prélude in F major. In this he evidently follows a practice that can also be heard in the recordings of Wilhelm Backhaus (APR7317 review) and Ferruccio Busoni. Levitzki does change the voicing a little in the repeat for variety. The three waltzes share a rhythmic restraint that wasn’t all that common at the time but in this instance his elegance and phrasing keep this from detracting. The nocturnes are perhaps his most personal playing and show evidence of older performing practices than the other works here, especially in the C minor nocturne; a little disconnection of the hands and lots of arpeggiation in the chord writing.

A London reviewer of a 1933 Wigmore Hall recital noted his complete technical facility but with no indication that he appreciated the difference in…style and musical content and this is evident in his Scarlatti Sonata, all clarity and efficiency but as romantic as his Liszt or Chopin, right down to the grand final chord. Perhaps this is why the Gluck/Brahms Gavotte works so well, this combination of the old style dance with a patina of romanticism. His virtuoso credentials are very much on show in the Tausig and D’Albert transcriptions as well as the now seldom heard Rubinstein staccato étude. The prelude from Liszt’s transcription of Bach’s A minor Prélude and fugue is stiffly played with a rather monotonous accented voice part but the fugue is full of light and shade and some remarkably lyric moments. As a rule his Liszt is virtuosic and dazzling though I often found it rather polite; fluid technical prowess, crystalline runs, pinpoint accuracy and trills to die for but with the same stylistic sense he brings to his Chopin. The Hungarian Rhapsodies are a case in point, effortless and urbane with lots of exquisite detail but lacking the swagger of the recruiting musicians whose music inspired Liszt so much.

The Moszkowski La Jongleuse that so delighted me when I was a teenager still enthrals me. This little encore bounces along so innocently but conceals the kind of octave playing that almost puts Liszt’s D flat Rhapsodie to shame and Levitzki doesn’t even blink! The Rachmaninov Prélude also trundles along, everything in place but the middle section barely takes time to breathe and the spirit of Rachmaninov is hardly awakened. On the other hand he gives a blistering account of Schumann’s G minor Sonata, only the second to be recorded, six years after Percy Grainger’s 1927 account (APR7501). Irene Scharrer’s unpublished 1924 version is wonderful but unfortunately incomplete (APR6014). Levitzki is masterful in finding the shape within Schumann’s mercurial writing and is emotionally engaged, particularly in the slow movement with lots of rhythmic flexibility. Evidently he had to find the right music to fully inspire him. Finally there is his little Valse in A, a real charmer if ever there was one. This was for Levitzki what the C sharp minor prelude was to Rachmaninov or the Minuet in G to Paderewski and his third recording, for RCA Victor in 1938, gives little plodding hints of being played too many times but the version here has all grace of his 1924 American Columbia version but in much better sound.

Now that the Naxos recordings are no longer available as physical CDs this twofer of his entire output on HMV is a very welcome release. The detailed booklet, reprinting Bryan Crimp’s notes from an earlier APR release of a selection of his HMV recordings, contains several photographs I haven’t seen before and to my ears the transfers by Bryan Crimps and Andrew Hallifax are equal to the Ward Marston transfers on the Naxos discs. Levitzki may have his detractors and I have admittedly pointed out issues with his recordings but there is so much to enjoy in his playing and he is most certainly a pianist I would not want to be without in my collection.

Rob Challinor

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank (April 2024)

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Beethoven, Ludwig van
Ecossaises, WoO83 (arr. d’Albert)
Chopin, Frederic
no.3 in A flat major, op.47
no.5 in F sharp major, op.15 no.2
no.13 in C minor, op.48 no.1
no.6 in A flat major, op.53 ‘Heroic’
Preludes, op.28
no.1 in C major
no.7 in A major
no.23 in F major
no.3 in C sharp minor, op.39
no.8 in A flat major, op.64 no.3
no.11 in G flat major, op.posth.70 no.1
Gluck, Christoph Willibald
Iphigenie en Aulide
Gavotte (arr. Johannes Brahms)
Levitzki, Mischa
Waltz in A major, op.2 ‘Valse Amour’
Liszt, Franz
Concert Etudes, S144
no.3 Un sospiro
Grandes Etudes de Paganini, S141
no.3 in G sharp minor ‘La campanella’
Hungarian Rhapsodies, S244
no.6 in D flat major
no.12 in C sharp minor
no.13 in A minor
Piano Concerto no.1 in E flat major, S124*
Preludes and Fugues for organ (Bach/Liszt), S462
no.1 in A minor (BWV543)
Mendelssohn, Felix
Rondo capriccioso in E major, op.14
Moszkowski, Moritz
Fantasiestucke, op.52, no.4 La Jongleuse
Rachmaninov, Sergei
Preludes, op.23, no.5 in G minor
Rubinstein, Anton
Etudes, op.23, no.2 in C major ‘Staccato Etude’
Scarlatti, Domenico
Keyboard Sonata in A major, K113
Schubert, Franz
Marches militaires, op.51 D733 no.1 in D major (arr. Carl Tausig for solo piano)
Schumann, Robert
Piano Sonata no.2 in G minor, op.22

Participating artists:
London Symphony Orchestra/Landon Ronald*