P1369. JOSEF LHEVINNE: The Complete Josef Lhevinne: Josef Lhevinne, Rosina Lhevinne, Members of Perolé String Quartet, John Barbirolli Cond. NYPO, etc.: Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Tschaikowsky, Rachmaninoff, & Schulz-Evler. 3-Marston 53023, recorded 1920-36.
“Ward Marston has given us something long overdue, a professionally produced restoration of all of the recorded material by the Russian pianist Josef Lhevinne (1874–1944). For those of us who consider Lhevinne one of the greatest pianists in an era of great pianists, the proof is finally available for anyone to hear. Included in this set are the four released sides he recorded for American Pathé in New York in 1920 and 1921. Next are all of the commercial recordings he made for the Victor Talking Machine Company and later RCA, including the duets with his wife Rosina - together they formed one of the most esteemed piano duos of the time. (An aside: The name Lhevinne is often shown with an acute accent over the ‘e’, but a check of his autographs on the Internet show no accent.)
It is possible that Lhevinne’s very limited recording output, amounting to less than four hours of preserved performances, was due to the stiff competition from great rivals. Thinking about this issue led me to do a bit of research which pointed out the extraordinary confluence of talents who were virtually exact contemporaries:
Ignaz Jan Paderewski: 1860–1941
Leopold Godowsky: 1870–1938
Sergei Rachmaninoff: 1873–1943
Joseph Lhevinne : 1874–1944
Josef Hofmann: 1876–1957
Ignaz Friedman: 1882-1948
Most observers indicate that what Lhevinne lacked was the kind of stage presence, or personal magnetism, that many of the others had; this might have limited his marketability for record company executives. The result is that Lhevinne’s commercial recordings add up to only around 90 minutes of music.
In addition to the commercial records, Marston has found a good deal of broadcast material. There are two performances that don’t quite add up to a complete Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1. The 1933 broadcast was part of a weekly series that Lhevinne was contracted for by NBC. The programs featured one or two movements of a concerto and then some solo pieces as encores. Because the broadcast was limited to a half-hour, all Lhevinne could fit in were the second and third movements of the Tchaikovsky. Marston found a private recording made during the 1936 Worcester Festival in Massachusetts where Lhevinne played the whole concerto. Unfortunately, the first transcription disc is missing, so the performance lacks the opening four minutes.
Lhevinne told his students that Tchaikovsky had described to him that the presto section in the second movement should sound like a ‘dream waltz’. In the opening of the third movement Tchaikovsky told him that he should think of ‘a man in a beer hall who has drunk all the beer and begins to hiccup involuntarily’. It is fortunate that we have two examples of Lhevinne’s playing of the concerto despite the limitations I’ve just noted. Apparently he did play the first movement on another NBC program, but this has not survived. The sound on the surviving broadcast is good, and one can hear the influence of Tchaikovsky’s suggestions in the performance. Unfortunately, there is a bit of an ensemble breakdown between pianist and orchestra near the end.
The live performance from the 1936 Worcester Festival has its own problems. Besides the missing four minutes, there is a small sonic glitch in the first movement. But more problematic is the microphone placement, which was somewhere inside the orchestra. French horns dominate, while the strings sound as if they are in another county. Still, one cannot doubt the value of having an example of the Tchaikovsky Concerto played by a master pianist with such close ties to the composer. One also would not willingly forgo the thrill of hearing Lhevinne’s powerful, accurate octaves. For a pianist whose principal asset might be his delicate fingerwork, the thunder in these passages is somewhat unexpected.
Particularly valuable is a 1942 broadcast of a War Bonds concert where Lhevinne joined members of the Perolé String Quartet (an American ensemble) in the Brahms Piano Quartet #1. This is the only recorded example we have of Lhevinne performing chamber music. Yet another delight is the Mozart Double Piano Concerto, K 242, with Rosina.
The composer with whom Lhevinne was most closely identified in the public’s mind was Chopin, and the Polish master’s music figure large in this set. Some of the works in the headnote exist in two or even three performances, because Lhevinne included in his NBC radio show works he had recorded for RCA.
The first four tracks are all that was released of his sessions with Pathé in 1920 and 1921. The Tchaikovsky Trepak, taken from the Morceaux, op. 72, is of great value because Lhevinne knew and played for Tchaikovsky. The same can be said for the Rachmaninoff g-minor Prelude, as the two maintained a friendship. In both performances one is struck by the clarity of Lhevinne’s fingerwork and the stunning evenness of articulation. He sounds as if he is having fun with the Trepak, but alongside this spontaneity is a sense of total command of the keyboard. In the Rachmaninoff it is the careful dynamic shading that impresses. The rhythms are crisp, the articulation crystalline. In the lyrical middle section the melody sings over a rock solid accompaniment, and the application of rubato is supple while the music always maintains its shape.
The last two Pathé sides include an arrangement of Beethoven Écossaises by Busoni, whom the Lhevinnes had known in Berlin, and a fiendish arrangement of Schumann’s song ‘Der Kontrabandiste’ by Karl Tausig. In both works Lhevinne demonstrates the hallmarks of his playing already mentioned, to which I would add a limpid legato that would be the envy of a bel canto soprano, and the ability to draw colors from the keyboard that even comes through the acoustic horn.
Next we come to the electrical recordings. The fifth track is the most famous of Lhevinne’s records, Adolf Schulz-Evler’s Arabesques on the Beautiful Blue Danube of Johann Strauss II. The clarity of articulation is such that you could take dictation from it. The lack of even a hint of blurring in the fastest passagework is exceptional. The overwhelming impression you come away with is of unparalleled smoothness at breakneck speeds with no loss of elegance.
Among the other highlights are the two sides of a 78-rpm RCA record made in 1935 featuring Schumann’s Toccata and Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s song Frühlingsnacht. The crystalline virtuosity of the former is a contrast to the lovely shaping of the vocal line in the latter.
All of the qualities discussed above come together to make Lhevinne’s Chopin treasurable. The Études from op. 10 and op. 25 are further demonstrations of his virtuosity and the musical uses to which that virtuosity is put. The other Chopin pieces take advantage of his ability as a keyboard colorist, and Marston’s transfers clarify this trait better than any prior edition I have heard. Lhevinne exhibits tremendous power in the ‘Heroic’ Polonaise, op. 53, without ever permitting his tone to harden. All of the live Chopin recordings duplicate works he recorded for RCA, and they demonstrate that Lhevinne must have been comfortable in the recording studio, because the usual difference between the studio and live recordings, specifically in regards to spontaneity, is much smaller than with most performers. In a few specifics (the ‘Winter Wind’ Étude, for example) there is a small degree of added frisson in the live reading, but otherwise the variation is slight.
Rosina Lhevinne was, of course, a wonderful pianist in her own right as well as a fabled teacher at Juilliard. But she refused to develop a solo career as long as her husband was alive, restricting her playing only to duets with him. The pair recorded the Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos in D, K 448 twice, in 1935 and 1939. The first movement from the 1935 recording is lost. Marston’s solution is to give us the full 1939 account and then to attach its first movements to the extant two movements from 1939. Both pianists exhibit classical poise and lovely interplay, but for me their finest recording as a duo is the 1935 RCA account of Fêtes, Ravel’s transcription of the middle movement from Debussy’s Nocturnes. The blending of colors and the mutuality over how dynamics are shaded and terraced are especially beautiful. Their delightful performance of Mozart’s Concerto for Pianos was issued by the New York Philharmonic in one of their archival sets in 1997. That was a good transfer for its time, but the piano and orchestral timbres are more natural and warmer in Marston’s edition. There is, unfortunately, a momentary dropout near the end of the slow movement, which must be on the original since it is present in both editions.
In the Brahms Piano Quartet #1 Lhevinne fits himself into the ensemble very nicely, but one cannot pretend that the Perolé Quartet is a major ensemble. The sound quality of the 1942 broadcast is excellent, but this cannot compensate for the lack of imagination and somewhat brittle tone of the string playing.
In summation, this is an extraordinary set whose value cannot be overstated. All known recordings (not including piano rolls) of one of the twentieth century’s greatest pianists are here, restored lovingly and accompanied by a booklet of essays that are up to Marston’s usual high standards. While some of this material has been available before, particularly the studio recordings, it has never sounded this good. There was a fine Naxos release of all the commercial recordings with restoration by none other than Ward Marston, issued in 2002. It was excellent for its time, but Marston has improved on that with this issue. Pianists, piano teachers, and pianophiles should consider this set essential. I’ve already marked it for my year-end ‘want’ List.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE