The Complete Josef Lhevinne (WILL SHIP WHEN AVAILABLE IN EARLY DECEMBER)

53023-2 (3 CDs)  | $ 54.00
PIANO

 

The Complete Josef Lhevinne
Josef Lhevinne studied at the Moscow Conservatory under Vasily Safonov, made his public debut at fourteen in a performance conducted by Anton Rubinstein, and graduated top of a class that included both Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin. Lhevinne is often included as one of the greatest golden-era pianists, and yet, his recorded legacy is approximately fifty minutes of repertoire for Pathé and Victor, albeit treasured and admired. And not unlike a star whose light went out too soon, the public created a mythos based on a small output and clamors for more examples of his playing to further justify his reputation. The wait is now over.

In addition to the Pathé and Victor recordings, this release includes a 1943 New York broadcast of Brahms's Op. 25 Piano Quartet with Lhevinne and the Perolé String Quartet, which is the cornerstone of this release. Also included will be several studio broadcasts from the 1930s. Among these broadcasts will be the second and third movements of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from an NBC studio broadcast of 1933, which has been in the hands of collectors for many years. However, we now have a nearly complete performance of this work: Josef Lhevinne featured in this concerto during a Worcester Festival concert in 1936. It should be noted that for unknown reasons the first four minutes of the concerto were not recorded and despite recording flaws, this recording does give us a sense of Lhevinne's unique brilliance. This set will be a must for anyone collecting recordings of pianists of the golden age.

CD 1 (71:45)

American Pathé, New York City

TCHAIKOVSKY

1. Trepak from Eighteen Pieces for Piano, Op. 723:19
 December 1920; (68894-2) 59057 

RACHMANINOFF

2. Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 103:21
 January 1921; (68892-3) 59057 

BEETHOVEN-BUSONI

3. Écossaises2:38
 January 1921; (69068-1) 27036 

SCHUMANN-TAUSIG

4. El Contrabandista2:07
 January 1921; (69067-2) 27036 

Victor Talking Machine Company, Camden, New Jersey

JOHANN STRAUSS, JR.-SCHULZ-EVLER

5. Arabesques on Themes from the Beautiful Blue Danube7:00
 1 May 1928; (CVE43445-9 and CVE43446-12) Victor 6840 

RCA Victor, New York City

SCHUMANN

6. Toccata in C, Op. 75:28
 7 June 1935; (CS92223-1 and CS92224-1) Victor 8766 

SCHUMANN-LISZT

7. Frühlingsnacht2:38
 7 June 1935; (CS92224-1) Victor 8766 

RCA Victor, New York City

CHOPIN

8. Etude in E-flat, Op. 10, No. 11, “Harp”2:28
 10 June 1935; (CS89883-1) Victor 8868 
9. Etude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 6, “Double Thirds”1:58
 10 June 1935; (CS89883-1) Victor 8868 
10. Etude in B Minor, Op. 25, No. 10, “Octave”3:32
 10 June 1935; (CS89884-1) Victor 14024 
11. Etude in A Minor, Op. 25, No. 11, “Winter Wind”3:35
 10 June 1935; (CS89882-1) Victor 8868 
12. Prelude in A-flat, Op. 28, No. 173:24
 6 January 1936; (CS98615-2) Victor 14024 
13. Prelude in B-flat Minor, Op. 28, No. 161:13
 6 January 1936; (CS98615-2) Victor 14024 
14. Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 536:10
 6 January 1936; (BS98613-1 and BS98614-1) Victor 1765 

DEBUSSY-RAVEL

15. Fêtes (Nocturne No. 2)5:44
 with Rosina Lhevinne
11 June 1935; (BS89889-1 and BS89890-1) Victor 1741
 

MOZART

 Sonata for Two Pianos in D, K. 448 
 with Rosina Lhevinne
23 May 1939; (CS92225-2); 11 June 1935; (CS89886-1, CS89887-1, CS89888-1) unpublished on 78 rpm
 
16. I. Allegro con spirito5:15
17. II. Andante6:30
18. III. Allegro molto5:24

CD 2 (79:46)

RCA Victor, New York City (continued)

MOZART

 Sonata for Two Pianos in D, K. 448 
 with Rosina Lhevinne
23 May 1939; (CS92225-3, CS92226-2, CS92227-4, CS92228-3) unpublished on 78 rpm
 
1. I. Allegro con spirito5:15
2. II. Andante6:23
3. III. Allegro molto5:34

BROADCASTS

CBS broadcast, 29 October 1939

MOZART

 Piano Concerto No. 7 in F, K. 242 (Arranged for Two Pianos) 
 with Rosina Lhevinne
New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli
 
4. I. Allegro9:21
5. II. Adagio7:46
6. III. Rondo: Tempo di Menuetto7:02

WQXR broadcast, 30 December 1942

BRAHMS

 Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25 
 with members of the Perolé String Quartet 
7. I. Allegro12:44
8. II. Allegro, ma non troppo8:51
9. III. Andante con moto9:31
10. IV. Presto: Rondo alla zingarese7:20

CD 3 (62:22)

BROADCASTS (continued)

NBC broadcast, 23 February 1933

TCHAIKOVSKY

 Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 
 with NBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Rosario Bourdon 
1. Introductory announcement0:31
2. II. Andantino semplice—Prestissimo7:04
3. III. Allegro con fuoco7:28

CHOPIN

4. Prelude in A-flat, Op. 28, No. 174:12
5. Etude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 6, “Double Thirds”2:03

Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, 24 October 1935

CHOPIN

6. Etude in A Minor, Op. 25, No. 11, “Winter Wind”3:29

The Magic Key, 3 November 1935

CHOPIN

7. Introductory announcement0:43
8. Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 536:07

Non-commercial private recording made during the 1936 Worcester Festival

6 October 1936, Worcester, Massachusetts

TCHAIKOVSKY

 Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 
 with the Worcester Festival Orchestra, conducted by Albert Stoessel 
9.I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso—Allegro con spirito15:48
 (bars 1-101 were not recorded; the last beat of bar 601 and the first two beats of bar 602 are missing) 
10. II. Andantino semplice—Prestissimo6:33
11. III. Allegro con fuoco7:09

CHOPIN

12. Prelude in B-flat Minor, Op. 28, No. 161:14

 

Producers: Ward Marston and Scott Kessler

Audio Conservation: Ward Marston and J. Richard Harris

Photos: Gregor Benko

Booklet Coordinator: Mark S. Stehle

Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi

Booklet Notes: Jonathan Summers

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
•   •   •

This project was made possible through the great generosity of Uwe Sauerteig.

Major sponsorship was provided by Greg L. Nichols and sponsorship by Patrick Vincent Casali.

 

Marston would like to thank Kevin P. Mostyn for providing the original disc source for the Worcester Festival recording, 6 October 1936.

Marston would like to thank Donald Manildi, Curator, for providing the original disc source for the Sonata for Two Pianos in D.

Marston would like to thank Miki Takebe, Director of Operations of the New York Philharmonic, for granting permission to issue the broadcast of 29 October 1939.

Marston would like to thank Seth B. Winner Sound Studios for the use of its remastering of the New York Philharmonic broadcast of 29 October 1939.

Marston would like to thank the New England Conservatory for providing the original disc source of the broadcast of 30 December 1942.

Marston would like to thank Gregor Benko and Donald Manildi for editorial guidance.

Marston is grateful to the Estate of John Stratton (Stephen Clarke, Executor) for its continuing support.

JOSEF LHEVINNE—STUDIO AND LIVE RECORDINGS

By Jonathan Summers

If one were to try to select five of the greatest pianists of the “golden era”, the chances are that they all came from Russia or Poland to reside in America between the two World Wars creating a period of unsurpassed quality in the history of piano playing.

It was the 1920s in particular that witnessed this great epoch of legendary musicians who had all been born in the 1870s. To names such as Josef Hofmann (1876–1957) and Leopold Godowsky (1870–1938), one would have to add Moritz Rosenthal (1862–1946), a Liszt pupil born the previous decade. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) left revolutionary Russia in 1919 to start a new life as a pianist in the United States while his classmate, Josef Lhevinne, settled there the same year after a period living in Berlin where he and his wife were interned during the First World War.

These paragons of pianism live on today through their recordings, particularly Rachmaninoff who made recordings from the moment he set foot in the United States until a few months before he died, enough to fill ten compact discs. Rosenthal made his first disc at the age of sixty-five, but recorded enough for five compact discs, albeit short works with some repetition of repertoire.

Both Godowsky and Hofmann made commercial discs for Columbia and Brunswick but, in the case of Hofmann, we have precious live performances from his concerto repertoire and some recitals. However, when we turn to Josef Lhevinne (1874–1944), there are just over eleven minutes of sonically poor recordings made for Pathé in the early 1920s and less than forty minutes of electrical recordings made for Victor in the 1930s. This begs the question of why Victor did not record Lhevinne in his major repertoire such as the Brahms Paganini Variations, Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques, or Carnaval, let alone any piano concertos. The business of the recording industry is probably the answer and with its association with HMV in England, Victor already had Alfred Cortot’s recording of Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques and Rachmaninoff’s recording of Carnaval in their catalogue. For the Paganini Variations, there was an excellent version by Wilhelm Backhaus. To record Lhevinne in repertoire already in the catalogue would not have been financially expedient.

The news that live material of Lhevinne had surfaced recently means that we can now hear more of this great artist, particularly in works extending beyond the confines of a four-minute 78-rpm disc side. A couple of movements of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 from an NBC broadcast of 1933 have floated around the collector circuit for many years, but the almost complete performance of this work and live chamber music material was, until recently, completely unknown.

BIOGRAPHY

Born in Orel, near Moscow, Josef Lhevinne was the ninth of eleven children of Arkady Levin, a trumpeter from Łódz´. Already playing the piano at the age of three, a few years later young Josef took lessons for five years with a local Swedish born piano teacher named Nils Krysander. At eleven he played Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and the “Pilgrim’s March” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser arranged by Liszt at a soirée where the Grand Duke Constantine was present. The Duke asked the child if he wanted to study at the Moscow Conservatory and at Josef’s affirmative answer the Duke spoke to a wealthy banker known for his munificence. Josef’s father requested Vassily Safonov as the piano teacher for his son at the Conservatory, and Josef received daily lessons at which his whole approach to piano playing was drastically altered.

One of the most important events during Lhevinne’s early years was his invitation to play for the great composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein. Whereas other students were allotted ten minutes in which to play, Lhevinne was given an hour and played Beethoven’s Eroica Variations, a Liszt rhapsody, etudes by Chopin, a Bach fugue, and an etude by Liadov. When the fourteen-year-old Lhevinne announced that he would play an etude in C minor by Chopin, Rubinstein shook his big head and shouted, “Make it stormy!” As Lhevinne related years later, “I played it with all my strength and power. Rubinstein jumped to his feet, kissed me, and wrung my hand. ‘You are a big, big boy’, he said; ‘work hard and you will be a great man!’”

After Lhevinne played at a gala concert to celebrate the golden jubilee of Anton Rubinstein in November 1889, Rubinstein asked Safonov for Lhevinne to play in the annual benefit concert for Widows and Orphans of Musicians. The fifteen-year-old Lhevinne played Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto with Rubinstein conducting:

The young pianist J. Lhevinne’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto had a huge success …. One can without fear predict for this youth a very brilliant future. In his playing were united all the qualities necessary for a virtuoso: colossal technique, perfect tone, and a lot of musicality. In respect to the last, he expressed such maturity as one would never expect from someone his age. (Nicholas Kashkin, Russkie Vedomosti)

Lhevinne graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 with the gold medal. He was in good company as his colleagues and fellow students that year included Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. He spent the summer that year with Rubinstein, each musician delighting in the other’s playing. Lhevinne said, “I think the highest compliment I ever had was when he said one day, ‘Damn it, he does play fine.’ His interest was an inspiration to me and helped me more than anything could.”

In August 1895 Lhevinne went to Berlin where he succeeded over thirty-two other candidates, including Diémer pupil and front runner Victor Staub, to win the coveted Anton Rubinstein prize with his performance of Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat, Op. 94. This launched Lhevinne’s career; he signed with impresario Hermann Wolff who scheduled a tour of Russia followed by his first tour of Europe comprising forty concerts. These included a January 1896 performance with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg and his Paris debut with the Lamoureux Orchestra. At this point however, Lhevinne was recalled to Moscow for compulsory military service and was unable to fulfill the remainder of his concert dates and this fact badly interrupted his new concert career.

Two years later Lhevinne married Rosina Bessie, herself a pianist who survived her husband by thirty-two years, dying in 1976 at the age of ninety-six. Born in Kiev in 1880, Rosina had also graduated from the Moscow Conservatory with the gold medal. Lhevinne was a shy and retiring man, always quietly spoken without a vestige of professional ambition, and it was Rosina who steered his career in America where they gave many recitals as a two-piano team.

Lhevinne made his London debut in 1903, and when he returned in 1912, again with Safonov as conductor, he performed three concertos in one concert with the London Symphony Orchestra: Liszt’s First, Beethoven’s “Emperor”, and Tchaikovsky’s First.

After teaching at Tiflis, Lhevinne became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory. He made his debut in the United States in 1906, and on 27 January gave his Carnegie Hall debut playing Rubinstein’s Fifth Concerto:

…an immediate and a really sensational success. An attempt has been made lately to introduce a new “Rubinstein” to local audiences but the real Rubinstein II is Mr Lhevinne. He has the great Anton’s technique, his dash and bravura, his brilliancy and a good deal of his leonine power. He can make a piano sing too. (The New York Times, January 1906)

The following morning Steinway & Sons offered Lhevinne a contract and an extended United States tour for the following season in which he played over one-hundred concerts.

Until the end of World War I, the Lhevinnes were based in Berlin from where Josef toured and also taught, but after the experience of being interned during the War, they moved to New York in 1919. It was in 1922 that Lhevinne was asked to join the staff of the newly formed Juilliard Graduate School of Music, and both he and Rosina taught there from 1924. In that year Lhevinne published a short book titled Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing. This is an extremely valuable book, (reprinted in 1972) from which many students would still benefit. Lhevinne toured the United States every year and made successful tours of South America and Europe in 1926, 1928, and 1937. On one of these tours, after a recital in London’s Grotrian Hall, a perceptive critic wrote:

Like every great pianist he has a style that is strongly personal and yet interferes in no way with the faithful presentation of the composer’s music. The chief detachable feature of his style is his economy in the use of the sustaining pedal. His finger work is a hardly credible miracle, combining, as it does, reticence, lightness, enormous power, and swiftness of repetition. His interpretations are poetical, but are based less on sensibility than on intellect. (The Times, 3 December 1928)

Lhevinne’s style was one of clarity, precision, and evenness. His effortless way of playing, total command of his instrument, and perfect control of his body can be seen in some fragments of silent film of him rehearsing at the Hollywood Bowl with Arthur Rodzinski in 1931. His unassuming personality and lack of ambition for the limelight could lead audiences to find him lacking in stage presence or charisma but musician and pianist Ernst Bacon thought Lhevinne had a singular, feline magnetism, almost mesmeric. He produced a velvety euphony; at times he seemed to glide over the keys like a gull over the water. Certain works became his undisputed property through diabolical speed and smoothness; among them, Rubinstein’s “Staccato Etude” and Balakirev’s “Islamey”. Of course, he was at home in the classics, but one wouldn’t have called him a classicist. In his hands, sheer virtuosity flowered into sumptuous beauty. He was a kindly, large, slightly stooped gentleman, all musician, so it seemed—all pianist, too, and much loved by his students.

In 1933, at the age of fifty-eight when he acquired US citizenship, Lhevinne was five feet eight inches tall and weighed 172 pounds.

In August of 1944 Lhevinne suffered a heart attack while visiting his daughter in California. He returned to New York but suffered a second attack in December from which he never recovered. He was seventy years old.

 

COMMERCIAL RECORDINGS

PATHÉ

It was at the end of 1918 that Lhevinne’s friend and classmate Rachmaninoff arrived in America and promptly gave forty concerts to raise funds to buy a house. Within a few months the Edison Company had enticed him into the recording studio, but a year later, in April 1920, he secured a profitable life-long contract with Victor who had been pursuing him.

The Lhevinnes arrived in New York on 22 October 1919 having not visited the city since 1906, and two days later Josef gave a recital in Connecticut. Obviously, the need to support his family was foremost in his mind during the first months after their arrival. Making records was a source of income but finding the right company was not so easy. Victor had just signed Rachmaninoff, Columbia had Leopold Godowsky in their catalogue, and Brunswick would soon sign Josef Hofmann.

The French company of Pathé Frères had difficulty exporting their discs to the United States during the First World War, so recording engineer and entrepreneur Russell Hunting set up a US branch of Pathé in New York in 1915. They mainly recorded popular music by artists such as Noble Sissle, as well as novelty orchestras such as xylophone orchestras. Lhevinne recorded two takes of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23” and two takes of Tchaikovsky’s “Trepak” for Pathé in December 1920. Two other matrices were recorded at these sessions, but it is not known what the repertoire was. The only side released was “Trepak”, from Eighteen Pieces for Piano, Op. 72. Twenty-seven years earlier, in the autumn of 1893, Lhevinne had met Tchaikovsky on the street in Moscow:

Tchaikovsky asked me to come with him to his hotel, explaining that he wished to show me a work he had recently completed. When we reached his rooms he brought out the manuscript of his Eighteen Pieces for Piano, Op. 72. He asked me if I would learn three of them while he was away on a trip to Petrograd and play them for him when he returned. I promised to do so, and took copies with me. But alas, Tchaikovsky never returned from that visit to Petrograd.

Although each of the eighteen pieces comprising Op. 72 is dedicated to a separate individual (in the case of the one Lhevinne recorded, to pianist Vassily Sapelnikoff), apparently the title page survives bearing the inscription “To Josef Lhevinne, a talent”, and is signed “P. Tchaikovsky, 22 September 1893, Moscow”.

Lhevinne returned to Pathé’s studio at 18 East 42nd Street in January 1921 where he recorded two takes each of a stunning Tausig arrangement of Schumann’s “Der Kontrabandiste” and Beethoven’s “Écossaises” arranged by Busoni (whom the Lhevinnes had known in Berlin). He also recorded a third take of the Rachmaninoff prelude which was the released take.

VICTOR

In January 1925, Victor negotiated a contract with Lhevinne for one year with one year’s renewal option. He was to record a minimum of two selections (titles, works, or sides) per year at $250, which was to be paid in advance when the chosen titles were approved. As with most Victor artists, he was offered a 10% royalty on sales. Compare this with Heifetz at $1,500 per selection, and it may be a reason why Lhevinne did not take up the offer. However, in the case of singer Paul Robeson, Victor only gave him $100 per selection and a royalty of one cent per side (not the usual 10% royalty).

Evidently Lhevinne did not accept the terms as his first Victor recording was not made until three years later in 1928—the almost infamous disc of Adolf Schulz-Evler’s “Arabesques” on Johann Strauss’s waltz “An der schönen blauen Donau”. The recording has never been surpassed in charm, panache, and rhythmic aplomb, and probably never will be. The remainder of Lhevinne’s Victor recordings were made in the mid-1930s when he was around sixty. The Chopin etudes and preludes he recorded at this time are breath taking in their virtuosity, as is the Schumann “Toccata, Op. 7”, whilst the Liszt transcription of Schumann’s song “Frühlingsnacht” shows Lhevinne’s exceptionally beautiful singing line. Lhevinne and his wife recorded Debussy’s “Fêtes”, arranged by Ravel for two pianos, and Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D, K. 448. The Debussy was issued, but the Mozart sonata was not approved. A further attempt to record the work was made in 1939, but this also remained unpublished until it was issued in the 1950s on an RCA LP.

LIVE AND
BROADCAST RECORDINGS

Between February and May 1933, Lhevinne gave thirteen weekly broadcasts on the NBC network. Each half-hour program included one or two movements of a piano concerto evidently followed by solo encores depending on remaining airtime. It may have been the popularity of the show that encouraged Victor to record Lhevinne in some of this solo repertoire in 1935. Surprisingly, the broadcast from 23 February 1933 has survived where Lhevinne played the second and third movements of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the NBC Orchestra conducted by Frank Black. Unfortunately, the broadcast containing the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto has not survived. The other repertoire Lhevinne played in this series included Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto No. 4, Weber’s Konzertstück, and Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos, where he was joined by Rosina. There is a curious hiatus at the end of the third movement where Lhevinne realizes he is not with the orchestra, but they manage to end a spirited and exciting performance together. Although the first movement is missing, another Lhevinne performance of this concerto recently surfaced, this time almost complete.

The Worcester Festival, which still takes place every year in Massachusetts, was founded in 1858. Dvorak performed there in 1893 and during the twentieth century many great musicians have appeared from Van Cliburn to Duke Ellington. The 1936 six-day event opened on 5 October with a concert performance of Saint-Saens’s Samson and Delilah, and closed with a performance of Gounod’s Faust sung in English. All performances were directed by American composer, violinist, and conductor Albert Stoessel (1894-1943), who, it was announced, “has assembled an outstanding group of soloists and an orchestra made up of musicians of leading symphonic organizations, in addition to the chorus of the Worcester County Musical Association.” Lhevinne appeared at an orchestral concert on the second evening. An interesting and unusual program included Virginia Folk Dances by John Powell, an early performance of William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony, plus works by Sibelius, Debussy, and Chabrier. Lhevinne played one of his warhorses, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23. For the mid-1930s, it is amazing not only that the performance was recorded, but that it has survived, including the encore of a Chopin prelude. Unfortunately, the microphone was placed right next to the horn section and the first disc is missing, so the performance begins four minutes into the first movement. However, sonic anomalies aside, it is fascinating to hear Lhevinne in a live performance of one of the great Russian piano concertos. Indeed, Lhevinne had played the solo part to the composer in Moscow in 1892 and received important comments and advice that he passed on to his students. Tchaikovsky told him that the presto section of the second movement should sound like a high speed “dream-waltz”, while playing the opening of the third movement he should think of “a man in a beer hall who has drunk all the beer and begins to hiccup involuntarily.”

A few other solos have survived from radio broadcasts during the mid-1930s. Again, it is repertoire that Lhevinne recorded for Victor, so the performances may have been to encourage sales of his discs.

It was during World War II, just a few days before Christmas on 20 December 1942, that Lhevinne took part in a War Bond Concert playing Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor with the Perolé String Quartet. This American quartet was active between the Wars and was originally formed of Joseph Coleman and David Mankovitz on violins, Lillian Fuchs on the viola, and Julian Kahn on the cello. Mankovitz was replaced by Max Hollander as second violinist in 1933 and Ernst Silberstein replaced Kahn as cellist in 1937. Coleman left as first violin in 1942, possibly before this broadcast, and the quartet disbanded not long after. It was recorded off the air and has survived in extraordinarily good sound. This is the first chance we have to hear Lhevinne in chamber music.

This live material compliments the well-known commercial recordings of Josef Lhevinne and gives us another dimension to his career while the opportunity to hear him in a live performance is of great value to musicians and all of us who appreciate the great artists of the past and what they have to offer us.

©Jonathan Summers, 2020

 

LHEVINNE MEETS BUSONI

by Albert Goldberg

(from “Pianists: Victories, Vagaries”, Los Angeles Times, 8 April 1979)

“… [In Berlin] They were received by Busoni seated in a thronelike chair on an elevated dais. His pupils, many of them later to become famous, sat clustered on the floor around his feet. The Lhevinnes had hardly paid their formal respects when Busoni, in the tone of a royal command, said ‘Play something, Lhevinne. Play the Schumann Toccata.’ Obediently Lhevinne dashed off the Toccata, a precarious piece to attempt without any preliminary warm-up. When he had finished, Busoni casually remarked, without raising his voice, ‘Very good. Now play the Brahms-Paganini Variations.’ Again Lhevinne obliged, though the Variations are one of the most difficult challenges for any pianist. The piece elicited the same non-committal response. ‘Very good. Now play Liszt’s “Feux follets,”’ another finger twister that Lhevinne had not played in a long time. And the evening passed. There the matter rested for at least a quarter of a century. During all that time the ghost of Busoni’s seeming indifference gnawed at Lhevinne’s pride. Some time after Lhevinne’s death, Mrs. Lhevinne attended a Hollywood party where she was introduced to the composer Louis Gruenberg. ‘Do you remember the night that Mr. Lhevinne played for Busoni at his home?’ Gruenberg asked Mrs. Lhevinne. ‘I will never forget it,’ Mrs. Lhevinne replied. ‘Well, I was there that night, sitting with the other Busoni pupils,’ Gruenberg told her, ‘The next day Busoni held a class, and before anyone played he stood up in front of all those talented pianists, wagged a finger and shook his head, and said, “All of you put together would not make one Lhevinne”’

 

STUDIES WITH ROSINA LHEVINNE

by Samuel Lipman

(from “Confessions of a Prodigy”, Commentary, 1 May 1981 issue)

“…Though I was now committed to attending Juilliard in the fall of 1959, I decided to begin my studies with Rosina, as she was widely called—not, of course, to her face—in Aspen, Colorado that summer. The old woman I started to work with regularly there was hardly the kindly crone I had previously known. No longer cute and cozy, the new (to me) Madame Lhévinne was energetic and irascible, often rigid, and opinionated on just about every musical issue … I could never forget that she was entirely dedicated to the past, both of piano playing and of music. She was hardly unselective in her loyalties. She was quite willing to give up such bypassed relics of other years as her teacher Vassily Safonov, who in his day had been important as both pianist and conductor; even the great Anton Rubinstein, whose mantle Josef Lhévinne had inherited, she honored and revered only for his playing, not for his rejected and sentimental music. It was vastly different, however, with Scriabin and especially with Rachmaninoff. She had known both in Russia before the turn of the century as schoolmates and as figures in the musical life of Moscow. She spoke of these men with awe; Rachmaninoff’s in particular was the only playing which for her approached that of her husband.

The great cause of her life was naturally her husband; for her, Josef Lhévinne was both spiritual saint and artistic genius. She was aware of his flaws; she herself talked—in decorous terms, it is true—of his continual philandering, of his childish unwillingness to work as hard as she thought he should, and of his irresponsible attitude toward money and his family’s security. Coming from someone else, it would have been a damning indictment. To Rosina, however, these many shortcomings were only the patina on a classic sculpture. What counted was his fabled sweetness of disposition, his gentle musicality, and his golden fingers … I was, however, somewhat familiar with his playing, if only at second hand; his few but elegant recordings were hallowed objects on every Rosina Lhévinne student’s phonograph. The performances enshrined on those disks were of romantic works, short in length, pleasing in mood, and frequently ferocious in technical difficulty. I could only admire, as everyone always did, the perfect technical mastery and the lovely tone he was able to convey despite the handicap of wretched, antiquated shellac originals. There could be no doubt that Josef’s pianistic achievements were stupendous.

But what his musical achievement was always seemed to me to be rather a different matter. My impression of his work was that, consistent with the Russian approach to classical art, all the considerable risks he took in performance were technical, not musical. He played with marvelous speed, lightness, and evenness; everything was, to use a favorite word of Rosina’s, ‘orderly.’ The music he chose to play on those records was well served by such an approach—if one could persuade oneself that all there is in music is easy virtuosity and restrained loveliness. Those qualities were in fact Rosina Lhévinne’s goals for her students. She hated harsh tone, musical exaggeration, heightened contrasts of both tempi and dynamics, and all kinds of irregularity and uniqueness. All these were ‘disorder.’ ... Her preferred sound image was of running water—cool, soothing, diverting, and decorative …”

A NOTE ON THE RECORDINGS

by Ward Marston

From the outset of his career, Josef Lhevinne had become a member of the pantheon of great pianists who flourished during the golden age of pianism. His posthumous reputation has rested principally upon a slim discography of four primitively recorded acoustic Pathé discs, and a group of extraordinary electric Victors that sparkle with verve and kinetic propulsion. These were best-sellers for the company and remained in print until the end of the 78-rpm era. Several important Lhevinne artifacts have recently surfaced that shed additional light on his artistry, and for the first time all his recorded performances are brought together on this three-CD set.

Soon after his 1919 arrival in the US, Lhevinne incised his earliest recordings for the American Pathé company, which had recently been attempting to break into the serious music market. Pathé’s arcane recording process was already outmoded; it had been developed two decades earlier by its French parent company, and now produced records that were woefully inferior to those of almost all other labels. Here’s how Pathé recordings worked: masters were recorded on large wax cylinders measuring approximately eight inches in diameter and about nine inches long. They rotated at 160 revolutions per minute and when these were played back, disc format recordings were extracted from the sound using a crude, mechanical pantographic system. There was some advantage because the company could then produce both vertical and lateral cut discs of various sizes from the same sound source. It would be fascinating to be able to hear the actual master cylinders because the sound was likely quite excellent, while the sound on their discs varied from adequate to awful. That process of transferring the original cylinder recording to disc format was what caused Pathé’s notorious reputation.

Clearly this was not an auspicious beginning for a world-famous pianist trying to undertake a successful recording career. His two Pathé discs must have been poor sellers as they are rarely found today. The Beethoven and Schumann coupling was available in both the vertical and lateral formats while only a vertically-cut version of the Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff disc was produced. Despite the shortcomings of the Pathé process, technological advances allow us today to hear these recordings to better advantage than ever before.

Lhevinne first visited the Victor Talking Machine Company’s New York studio in 1928, recording only one selection, his drawing-card specialty, Schulz-Evler’s “Arabesques on Themes from the Beautiful Blue Danube”. With cuts it was eight minutes in length, requiring two sides. It was issued that year by Victor and also by the Gramophone Company in England, remaining in both catalogues until the close of the 78-rpm era. It was transferred for this issue from quiet vinyl pressings made from the original metal masters. We may never know exactly why Victor recorded only this one selection by Lhevinne, but it is worth noting that Rachmaninoff was the piano star of the label, and that the great Moritz Rosenthal was also engaged that same year by Victor to record his own paraphrase on themes from the “Blue Danube” and his composition, “Papillons”. But why were only two sides for Lhevinne and three sides for Rosenthal recorded? Was Victor simply testing the sales potential of augmenting their roster of important pianists? Incidentally the Rosenthal recordings were not approved for publication by Victor, but his Blue Danube paraphrase on two sides was issued for a short time by The Gramophone Company on the Electrola label.

Lhevinne recorded again for the company (now renamed RCA Victor) during three sessions in June 1935 and one session in January 1936, producing his ten remaining published sides, transferred here from excellent commercial shellac pressings.

On 7 and 11 June 1935, two attempts were made to record Mozart’s Sonata in D for Two Pianos with his wife, Rosina. Each session yielded one complete performance on four sides, but neither performance was approved for publication. Shellac test pressings of sides two, three, and four from the 11 June performance have survived, but there has been no trace of side one from either the 7 or 11 June sessions. The Mozart sonata project was shelved until 1939 when the couple rerecorded it, but again all takes were rejected for publication. Test pressings of all four sides exist, which were issued on an RCA LP disc and a Naxos CD issue (Naxos gives the recording date erroneously as 27 May 1937). For the sake of completeness, we have assembled two different performances for this release. For the first performance, side one derives from 1939 and the rest comes from the extant 11 June 1935 performance. All of the second performance comes from the 23 May 1939 session. Both performances are well played.

The remainder of this set comprises non-commercial recordings from broadcasts of both studio and concert performances. Broadcasting in the US began in November 1920 and the development of electrical recording by Bell Telephone Laboratories in the mid-1920s made it possible to record “off the air”, but it could only be done by cutting a wax master disc, and then electroplating it so that pressings could be made for playback. The major record companies made recordings of broadcasts, but only on occasions thought to be of great significance such as the 1927 ceremony welcoming Charles Lindbergh home after his historic transatlantic flight, excerpts of which were issued on four Victor records.

The early 1930s saw the development of new methods of disc-cutting whereby recordings could be made and immediately played back without processing into pressed records. At first the most successful was a system that embossed grooves into the blank surface of a polished aluminum disc. The sound from these recordings was greatly inferior to commercially pressed records, but finally, individual “instantaneous playback” records could be made at a fraction of the cost of producing pressed discs. By 1932, recording studios that offered custom recording services using this new process began springing up around the US, with radio celebrities and program sponsors hiring such studios to have their broadcasts recorded and preserved. At the playing speed of 78 rpm the maximum duration for each disc was four minutes, but by using two turntables running in alternative sequence, entire broadcasts could be recorded with no loss of information. The sonic results were so disappointing, however, that most early examples of broadcast recording were doomed to the trash heap, and relatively few have survived. The 1933 NBC broadcast presented here (CD 3, Tracks 1–5) was transferred from the original twelve-inch aluminum discs that were rescued from the record collection of NBC staff conductor, Frank Black, who probably arranged to have the broadcast recorded. We cannot postulate why Lhevinne’s other seven programs in this series have not surfaced; if they were recorded, perhaps they were thrown out as many such discs inevitably were, and it is a minor miracle that this single program has survived.

It was not long before several major breakthroughs in disc-cutting technology made the previous method obsolete. By the end of 1934 a new system of disc cutting became available that used aluminum discs coated with a thin layer of lacquer. It permitted the recording stylus to cut grooves rather than merely emboss them, and that yielded greatly superior sound. Simultaneously, improvements in cutting lathes and amplifiers made it possible to record at 33 rpm rather than the standard 78-rpm speed, and by 1935 new turntables could accommodate sixteen-inch discs that would permit fifteen minutes of recording time per side. Lhevinne’s 1935 radio appearances (CD 3, Tracks 6–8) were transferred from sixteen-inch lacquer discs recorded by the NBC network for the purpose of preservation, which by that time was mandated by the Federal Communications Commission.

A few years-ago some one hundred instantaneous playback discs came up for auction that comprised recordings of Worcester Music Festival concerts of 1936 and 1937, made for the purpose of preservation by the festival’s management. They were purchased, sight unseen, by music lover and collector Kevin Mostyn, who generously made them available to us. These recordings preserve concert appearances by Rosa Ponselle and Lawrence Tibbett, as well as Josef Lhevinne performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor, issued here for the first time. The recording was made with inferior equipment using the obsolete embossed aluminum-disc process, further compromised by the fact that the equipment operator seems to have been barely competent. The microphone was placed disadvantageously right in line with the lower brass section, and if that were not enough, the recording level was occasionally turned down for no apparent reason. The worst occurrence of this happens toward the end of the third movement where the music is practically inaudible for about twenty seconds. The missing four minutes at the beginning of the concerto were unaccountably not recorded; its absence is not due to a lost disc but another example of ineptitude. Even with its flaws, the recording gives us insight into Lhevinne’s concert playing. Without the vigilance of collectors like Mr. Mostyn so many recordings would otherwise have been lost!

By the close of the 1930s a few enthusiastic hobbyists around the US had begun making off-air recordings using high quality radio receivers and the newest generation of disc cutting equipment that could accommodate 33-rpm recordings on sixteen-inch discs. We who grew up with the ease of simply switching on a tape recorder to record a broadcast have no idea of the skill needed to make those disc recordings. It was no easy task, requiring absolute attention to the sound level and in making sure that the cutting lathe was working properly. Recording systems could be purchased with either single or dual turntables. Sadly, many of the off-the-air recordings from this period were cut with only a single turntable where the maximum time was fifteen minutes per disc. The 1939 New York Philharmonic performance of Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos heard here (CD 2, Tracks 4-6) was recorded this way; consequently there is a gap during the second movement when the disc ran out of time and had to be turned over to resume the recording. We must nevertheless be grateful that such recordings were made and preserved. That original recording is now housed at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound of the New York Public Library.

The most serious recording enthusiasts purchased costly dual turntable systems enabling them to record continuously by switching from one turntable to the other, then back to the first. The 1942 recording of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G Minor (CD 2, Tracks 7–10) was recorded by a retired attorney, Charles C. Rhodes, who devoted tremendous time and effort recording thousands of hours of classical music radio broadcasts beginning in 1941, and continuing through the mid-1950s. Rhodes used two turntables, recording everything at 78 rpm on discs of various sizes in order to capture the best possible sound quality. His collection is particularly notable because he often recorded important musicians playing on local programs from New York stations WNYC and WQXR that would otherwise not have been preserved. Were it not for the dedication of Rhodes, this example of Josef Lhevinne in chamber music would not exist today.