> Josef Lhevinne - The Complete Recordings [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Josef Lhevinne (1874-1944)
The Complete Recordings
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Sonata in D for two pianos K448
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Toccata in C
Frühlingsnacht arr LISZT
El Contrabandista ARR TAUSIG
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Etude Op 10 No 6
Etude Op 25 Nos 6, 10, 11
Prelude Op 28 No s 16 and 17
Polonaise Op 53
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899)

Blue Danube Waltz arr SCHULZ-EVLER
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Fetes arr RAVEL
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Peter I TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Prelude in G Minor
Josef Lhevinne, piano
Rosina Lhevinne, piano (Mozart, Debussy)
Recorded 1920-1937
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110681 [71’05]

Seventy-one minutes of music making is all that has survived of Josef Lhevinne, one of the greatest of all pianists - a commonplace claim these days but one handsomely borne out in these incontestably magnificent recordings. Lhevinne was born near Moscow in 1874 and studied with Vassily Safonov before coming under Anton Rubinstein’s spell. Rosina, whom Lhevinne married in 1898, graduated, as did her husband, from the Moscow Conservatoire and they were later to form a formidable team, some evidence of which exists on this disc. Lhevinne met and impressed Tchaikovsky sufficiently for the composer to entrust him with the manuscript of the Eighteen Pieces for Piano Op 72 (but Tchaikovsky died before he could hear Lhevinne play them). Having moved to Berlin the Lhevinnes were interned during the First World War and moved to New York, where Josef made his first recordings for Pathé in 1920 or 21 (the precise date seems to be uncertain).

Ward Marston’s transfers of these Pathés are a considerable improvement on the boxy Novello issue of the Complete Recordings, issued over a decade ago. We can better appreciate his exquisite pianism. His Tchaikovsky is deliciously vivacious, though the copy used is unfortunately a poor one, badly centred or warped, it’s still important to listen through it to hear the pianist’s fantastic control at a breathtaking tempo. His Schumann displays increasing rhythmic intensity, the Beethoven Ecossaises effortlessly balanced. The bulk of Lhevinne’s recordings date from 1935-37 though one of his speciality pieces, the Strauss Blue Danube Waltz, in Schulz-Evler’s ridiculous but intoxicating arrangement, was recorded in 1928. The Mozart Sonata for two hands was in fact never issued on 78 – the Lhevinnes refused to allow its release though it’s difficult to see why. This is true con spirito playing - vibrant, vivacious, and convulsively witty. In the first movement full weight is given to the fugal entry points – emphatic and clear – and phrases are built at a relatively quick tempo. In the slow movement there is no over–romanticisation at the warm and lively tempo chosen. The tone is balanced with not too many crescendos and decrescendos, the line being kept superbly intact. And in the finale, with not much pedal, there is some tremendous bass and a lively and increasingly incendiary conclusion is the result. A marvellous, life-affirming performance. They are equally good in the Debussy, thriving on momentum, rhythm and the orchestrally tonal colouration of Ravel’s arrangement. Lhevinne’s solo recordings from the mid-thirties are by now part of the fabric of great solo performances. The Schumann Toccata may surprise those who don’t know Lhevinne’s way with it; perhaps anticipating combustion they will instead find playing entirely musical in orientation, with subsumed virtuosity. This is certainly not as hell-for-leather as other less intelligent and nuanced readings and its contrastive properties are colossally imaginative. The Chopin discs are equally memorable. The inhuman speed and accuracy of the G sharp minor Etude has to be heard to be believed; the almost daemonic but calibrated fervour of the B Minor is another jaw-dropping moment – once heard, never forgotten. And yet Lhevinne’s aesthetic was aristocratic; there is never the feeling that virtuosity is being paraded or velocity advanced as a means to an end – with Lhevinne you always feel the humanity behind the notes. He has an elegance and a sophistication and traces the moods and trajectories of Chopin with lightening reflexes and in the Preludes he fuses together elements of his pianistic instincts to form a kind of incendiary aristocracy of address. He had all the qualities – passionate engagement, delicate refinement, an acute musical ear, a sense of grace, a technique of the utmost sophistication; it may be a small legacy but these are among the greatest seventy-one minutes you will spend with a pianist.

Jonathan Woolf

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