Ernst Levy, Forgotten Genius, Vol. III        (2-Marston 52039)
Item# P0089
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Ernst Levy, Forgotten Genius, Vol. III        (2-Marston 52039)
P0089. ERNST LÉVY, Forgotten Genius, Vol. III, incl. Schumann, Brahms & Beethoven (incl. the latter’s Waldstein Sonata #21 in C). 2-Marston 52039, Live Performances, mid-1950s, Boston. Transfers by Ward Marston. Long out-of-print, Final sealed Copy. - 638335203928


“The success of Marston Records’ reissues devoted to composer/pianist Ernst Levy’s commercial recordings from the 1950's has led to the first publication of live performances of similar vintage featuring repertoire Levy otherwise did not record, with the exception of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ sonata. Collectors familiar with Levy’s highly personal and often idiosyncratic studio interpretations will find the pianist operating at even more dangerous extremes in front of an audience. Rapid passage work and big climaxes often speed up and run amok, as you hear in the Op. 10, #3 and ‘Waldstein’ first movements, or in the Appassionata’s coda where Levy’s high-octane abandon makes Richter sound comparatively genteel. By contrast, Levy transforms the Op. 10, # 3’s Menuetto into an unusually slow interior monologue. He employs little melodic hesitations in the Waldstein’s Rondo that enhance the ghostly effect of Beethoven’s long pedal markings, and he spices up the lyrical ‘Pastorale’ sonata with all sorts of dynamic jabs and angular phrasings.

Levy’s unfettered accounts of Schumann’s ‘Symphonic Etudes’ and Brahms’ Handel Variations (with some repeats observed and others ignored) similarly tow the fragile line between profound insight and capricious anarchy. For example, the Schumann finale incorporates lurching speed-ups and slow-downs that make little structural or emotional sense, while the last group of Brahms variations builds with the unrelenting power of a speeding torpedo, notes be damned. An air of normalcy (at least by Levy’s volatile standards) and controlled passion governs the three Op. 118 selections. In an era where recitalists perform the same way in concert as they do on disc, it’s refreshing to eavesdrop on Ernst Levy playing ‘in the moment’, oblivious to posterity. Whether or not Levy would have sanctioned the publication of these problematic yet intriguing performances, you can hardly call them dull.”

- Jed Distler,

“It’s best to read this review in the light of my previous examinations of the Levy Phenomenon, already documented in the first two volumes issued by Marston. His biographical story and his intellectual and musical horizons are noted there. Levy is one of those musicians for whom a Health Warning is necessary on the back of the jewel case, in this case: His performances are not for the faint of heart. Everything I’ve heard leads me to second that judgement with the corollary that his recordings are of such personalised power that they demand a hearing.

Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms constitute the heavyweight programme in recitals given in 1954, 1955 (the bulk) and 1959. Sound quality obviously varies though it never falls beneath the serviceable and is often very good such as the Op.10, #3 Sonata performance. This certainly opens at a ‘Presto’ - and no mistake – but is then subjected to so many ramifications of rubati, agogics and tempo fluctuations that it soon leads to a kind of phrasal compaction. Levy’s avoidance of a regular tempo is part of an almost mathematical extremism, his continual surge and release of phrases part of a larger emotive swelling. Similarly the ‘Largo’ is heroically slow and italicised, not unlike Tureck’s later Bach recordings in its microscopic analytical schema. The non-legato approach, fused with a deliberate lack of sustain or warmth or indeed pedal, adds its own ominous chill. There is a lengthy analysis in the notes of what Levy does in the ‘Minuet’, or maybe to the ‘Minuet’. I must say here that the lifeless corpse of this movement, so drained of rhythm, or anything approaching motion, has its own horrible fascination. And the weird, sectional, non-linear Rondo finale – replete with staccati and perfectly non-legato – has its own abrupt sound world that will be far removed from most people’s experience. And in the ‘Waldstein’ one hears the same battery of idiosyncrasies – of articulation, tempo, and phrasing. One never goes more than a few bars without incursions of this kind and the result is a bewildering sense of dislocation and otherness, of re-sculpting and re-aligning the music in the light of a powerful sense of the unresolved tension and drama engendered by Levy.

The ‘Appassionata’ was recorded in 1955 and the sound is a touch more subterranean but it’s still acceptable. Here the Dionysian seems to gain the upper hand; this is disruptive, dangerous playing that seems to ride roughshod over bar lines, metre and any semblance of normalcy in Beethovenian pianism. The way Levy highlights or picks at notes and phrases with such unexpected determination in the slow movement is another example of his remorseless examination of the otherness of these canonic works. If one thinks this playing off-kilter and absurd – and there’s clearly a case to be made that it is – one should note that behind the apparent caprice Levy had an acute and penetrating mind; his decisions are not random.

I’d be repeating myself too much to run through his Schumann with a fine-toothed comb. Objections – yes, certainly. A non-narrative sense of discursiveness, too much pedal, some forcing through the tone, holding chords too long, a frantic aspect, confused voicings (variation VII) and textual lack of clarity; finally a heroic approach to the (non) establishment of a tempo – in the finale – and wildly exaggerated accelerandos and decellerandos. And in its favour? More difficult to say - maybe a sense of the wildness of the music, its unpredictability. It won’t do as a corrective - because what is it supposed to be correcting? - but it’s remarkable to hear…..

The notes are once again strongly reflective of pro-Levy feeling and rightly so, of course, given the nature of the performances and the bewildered response they will generate in most quarters (and of course equally they will engender iconoclast support in others). Specialists and those strong of heart will snap up Volume 3. If you want to know where a pianist can take the ‘Symphonic Etudes' or the Op.10, #3 Sonata I suggest you beg or borrow this disc and prepare to be appalled, shocked, horrified, amazed, stunned, bewildered, elated, confused or just plain pole-axed.”

- Jonathan Woolf,

“When Marston began the Ernst Lévy series early in the company's history, few knew this remarkable pianist and many were stunned by his artistry and deep insight into the music of Beethoven and Liszt. The series developed into a mission not only to uncover and make available additional Lévy performances, but also to expand the accepted perceptions of some of the most important works in the piano repertoire. This fourth installment will not disappoint. It comprises concert and studio recordings of Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven, and Liszt, including a virtually unknown performance of the Schubert Posthumous Sonata in A; four Haydn Sonatas recorded in Switzerland, and unreleased live performances of Beethoven’s Op. 111 and Liszt's b-minor sonata.”

"Lévy was more than a virtuoso pianist - though 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….Lévy's Beethoven is the pianistic equivalent of Furtwängler.... Ward Marston, that master transfer artist, has done his best with varied source materials."

- Allen Linkowski, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, May/June, 1998

"Another important piano discovery, Ernst Lévy, remains unknown to all but the most dedicated piano buffs – he is not even mentioned in Schonberg’s book on the great pianists –these defiantly personalized performances are utterly free of convention and burn with conviction….”

- Peter G. Davis, NEW YORK, 24 Aug., 1998