Lazare Lévy, the oddly hyphenated name came
much later, was born in Brussels in 1882 where his parents had
fled to avoid the German occupation after the war of 1872. He
was a pupil of Louis Diémer at the Paris Conservatoire and was
in turn to rise to a comparable eminence as one of the greatest,
if not the greatest, of Parisian teachers. That he is not as
well remembered as Yves Nat, or Cortot or Marguerite Long may
rest on a paucity of recordings; it certainly can’t reflect
a prestigious lineage of pupils, three of whom are represented
in this triple CD set.
He had a considerable
career and an unusually catholic repertoire taking in Rachmaninov
as well as de Falla when their works were hot off the press,
though he was a pillar of the French repertoire ancient and
modern. He took over Cortot’s chair at the Conservatoire in
1923 and managed to maintain a busy schedule of concert programmes,
travelling to Turkey, Egypt and Palestine as well as to Athens
and Vienna - and most geographical points in between. He was
at the apex of his prestige in the 1930s but the War took a
terrible toll of himself and his family; his son Phillipe was
a resistance fighter and was captured and killed. As a Jew in
occupied France his life was held in the balance but he managed
to survive through constant movement and vigilance, though the
Conservatoire job he’d held was given to Marcel Ciampi and Lazare-Lévy
never recovered it. He did continue to give concerts however
and to record and teach (Michel Plasson, André Tchaikovsky).
He died in 1964.
Most of the recordings
here are post-War and therefore date from his sixties and beyond.
They reflect very accurately his strongest reportoirial strengths
and make for a consistently important body of commercial and
live recordings. The little Couperin pieces offer a glimpse
into his compelling mastery of the genre and his Mozart shows
a player of directness and high seriousness. He plays the Allegretto
finale of K330 with playful warmth, light in the French style;
the recording is undated and inclined to be a little cloudy,
though it does pick up his strong bass extensions in the Andante
of the same sonata. There’s no exaggeration in his Mozart playing;
K331 has a few left hand fluffs and the dynamics are flat, as
much a recording characteristic as the playing I suspect, but
this is unmannered and quite stylish playing. His Beethoven
has no obvious philosophic predilections though the extracts
don’t necessarily allow the opportunity for real examination
of a composer to whose music he was devoted and which he played
extensively. On the limited evidence here he was a straightforward,
elevated and rather serious player.
His Chopin consists
entirely of Mazurkas and the Op.48 No.1 Nocturne from a 1951
Geneva broadcast. Impressive once more these take no great liberties,
but are suggestive and colourful – the Op.17 No.4 Mazurka is
especially languid and evocative. His Nocturne is measured but
stylish. Even better is his elite Chabrier – rhythmically vivacious,
subtle, treble-glinting. The sole Debussy is a glimpse of his
way with the composer and would that we had more. The Schumann
Kreisleriana is regrettably not quite complete – it comes from
the pianist’s own archive and is undated – and offers a different
kind of French Schumann from those expounded by contemporaries
such as Cortot or Nat. It’s actually rather like his Mozart
– with unexaggerated rhetoric, a sure sense of spine and direction,
not over-poeticised or galvanically romanticised. The recording
is slightly hollow but the Erard is caught with reasonable fidelity.
The Dukas is from a 1931 78.
This is all the
Lazare-Lévy that we have but there are also examples of recordings
by three of his elite pupils. Clara Haskil contributes the Jeunehomme
Concerto with Otto Ackermann conducting, a Cologne studio concert
from 1954. The piano is very closely recorded but the orchestral
textures are very attractively aerated by Ackermann who has
a very particular conception of the strings’ role in particular
and that’s to be as light and lissom as possible. Haskil contributes
a fine Andantino cadenza and there’s a sense of affectionate
spaciousness in the finale – as well as a sense of line. In
all this is a most diverting reading, though in the context
of a tribute to her teacher maybe a series of smaller pieces
might have been preferable.
In Solomon’s case
we get both such a series of miniatures and a big concerto.
Bryan Crimp, in his biography of the British pianist, relates
that Lazare-Lévy refused all payment from Solomon. And I suspect
that many will be unaware of his two years in Paris after the
First World War where he clearly learned well and much from
the Frenchman – and the admiration was mutual. From Solomon
we have a very Lazare-Lévy like programme of Scarlatti, Couperin,
Daquin, de Séverac and Debussy. Some of these solo items are
currently available on other labels – APR in particular - but
it makes for a judicious selection here. Solomon’s famously
slow Debussy is here and he shows that de Séverac doesn’t have
to be served “Fabriqué en France” so delectably is it pointed.
The Brahms Concerto is a known commodity and collectors will
have it on Myto. This was made shortly before his commercial
recording and whilst full of his towering intellectual control
and depth of utterance, is not notably finer than that one.
Jochum is again
on hand to accompany another distinguished pupil, Monique Haas,
in Bartók’s Third Concerto. However attractive it is to hear
the two musicians together the 1951 sound is subfusc and there’s
considerable distortion in the orchestral tuttis and a cloudy,
occluded sound generally not at all favourable to the elucidation
of detail and deftness. We can appreciate the warm solo chording
in the slow movement and the weight of string tone Jochum encourages
but it’s a generally uncomfortable aural ride.
I must not forget
to commend the long biographical essay nor the accompanying
booklet, which is devoted to a pictorial biography of the pianist.
There are some beautifully reproduced photographs and a splendid
colour reproduction of Henri Lebesque’s 1908 painting, spread
over two pages. There’s little here, if at all, about his pupils
but the focus remains locked on Lazare-Lévy and Tahra’s devotion
to him pays rich rewards.