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by Allen Linkowski
American Record Guide, May/June 1998

Ernst Levy--Forgotten Genius

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata 29 & 32; LISZT: Sonata; Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude; Spozalizio; Hungariarn Rhapsody 12; LEVY: Pieces 6, 7, 8, 9, 18 --Marston 52007 (HM) [2CD] 2:37

Ernst Levy was one of the century's most remarkable musicians, although his name is all but unknown to even many specia1ists in the study of gleat pianists. Levy's performances are not for the faint of heart. Those encountering him for the first time may well be shaken--perhaps irritated by some of the unorthodox aspects of his approach.

This quote from Donald Manildi's superb annotation for this new Marston release may serve to stimulate interest in some of the most challenging music-making ever committed to posterity. The Swiss-born pianist stands with Cortot, Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Hofmann, and a handful of others in the pantheon of the great pianists of the 20th Century Levy was more than a virtuoso pianist-- although his technical prowess was staggering; he was an intellectual in the true sense of the word, and music was but one aspect of his creative life.

This two-disc anthology reveals what real artistry is all about. The playing is nothing short of revelatory. Liszt's one-movement sonata is presented as the revolutionary work that its composer created, not as a technical tour de force designed to demonstrate a pianist's dexterity. Levy penetrates its mysteries as only a handful of pianists have been able to do. Listen to those opening low Bs. They are given their full weight--not the clipped, meaningless staccatos offered by most pianists. Note how the music unfolds in all its passion, drama, and mystery. Tempos may wildly fluctuate, but the whole is never fractured. This is one of the great recorded performances of the work, in a league with Cortot, Horowitz, Arrau, Gilels, and Richter. The Benediction is remarkable, the sheer power of the climaxes is shattering, Could Liszt, perhaps, have played it this way? And what a fascinating performance Levy gives of Hungarian Rhapsody 12--the experience left me speechless. Spozalizio is also brilliantly realized, though the 1929 sound is limited.

Levy's Beethoven is the pianistic equivalent of Furtwängler. No. 29, the only stereo recording of the batch is breathtaking. Few pianists have the resources to bring the composer's impossible writing to life. It has to be heard to be believed. 32:II is the most expansive reading I have heard. Stretched to the breaking point, it explores worlds unimagined by most pianists. Those treacherous trills are perfectly executed. Levy plays his own miniatures with obvious affection.

Ward Marston, that master transfer artist, has done his best with the varied source materials. The Beethoven 32 and the Liszt Sonata and Benediction were recorded in the warm acoustic environment of MIT's Kresge Auditorium and produced by Peter Bartok. The 1956 sources hold up well. Beethoven 29 originally appeared on Kapp Records; the sonics are murky but listenable. The Levy pieces were recorded by Columbia Masterworks in superb sound and appear here for the first time.


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