> Ernst Levy; Forgotten Genius plays Beethoven, Liszt and Levy [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ernst Levy; Forgotten Genius plays Beethoven, Liszt and Levy
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No 29 Op 106 Hammerklavier (1818)
Piano Sonata No 32 Op 111 (1822)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Sonata in B Minor S178 (1852-53)
Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses No 3 Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude S173 (1845-52)
Années de Pèlerinage, Seconde Année No 1 Sposalizio S161 (1837-49)
Hungarian Rhapsody No 12 S244 (1846-85)
Ernst LEVY (1895-1981)
Pieces for Piano Nos 6, 7, 8, 9 and 18
Ernst Levy, piano
Recorded 1954-58 except Liszt’s Sposalizio recorded on a Sonabel 78 in 1928
MARSTON 52007-2
[2 CDs 156.59]

The word Forgotten is well chosen by Marston, Genius somewhat more contentious. Nevertheless the first volume in the series devoted to the Swiss-born pianist throws up some extraordinary challenges to the listener and to received orthodoxy. Born in Basel in 1895 Levy studied with two of the great pianists, firstly Raoul Pugno and then with Busoni’s pupil, Egon Petri. A stint as a choirmaster in Paris – where, rather amazingly, he gave the Parisian premieres of Brahms’s German Requiem and Liszt’s Christus – was followed by migration to America to escape the European turmoil of the 1930s. He taught, wrote, performed and recorded – for small labels – until his retirement in 1966 whereupon he returned to Switzerland where he died in 1981.

A colleague said of him that "one either accepted him completely or else had no idea what he was about." Some listeners may share one or other of these views or, conceivably, like me, both. The extent of his rhythmic licence is paramount to discussion of Levy’s pianism, allied to a vast tonal palette, which reaches truly vertiginous heights and the extent of this monumentality can frequently perplex even as it astonishes. There’s very little to tax Levy technically here; even the toughest demands are met with reserves of power and authority and these performances of Beethoven and Liszt are, quite simply, stupendously accomplished in this respect and of commanding intensity.

The two CD set meets these issues head on with the first piece, a performance of the Hammerklavier. There is a remarkable breadth of intellectual sinew underlying Levy’s musicianship, a dramatic engagement and technical eloquence. But for all the surety and direction of the concluding Largo there remains for me something troubling about the rhythmic displacements of the Adagio sostenuto that seem to disrupt and impede the natural development of the movement. Op 111 reinforces the view of Levy the intellectualized Beethovenian; this shows a compelling mind at work and a stunning control of a slow opening followed by magisterial acceleration. His Liszt Sonata is strong, quick with plenty of pedal. The first movement discloses plenty of stormy passagework and in the concluding Allegro energico an almost limitless supply of big bracing rubati, sudden dynamics, winnowing of sound to pp, constant syntactical surprises, all controlled by a profound sense of the work’s moods and relatedness. The Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude receives a transcendent performance and one that fuses musico-intellectual understanding to a really remarkable degree, whilst Sposalizio is taken from one of Levy’s rare 78s, in this case a Sonabel from around 1929. In decent sound, given the relative rarity of the disc, this adds a deeper view of Levy because the vast bulk of surviving material dates from the middle to later 1950s – when he cut the Sonabel he was in his mid-thirties. The Hungarian Rhapsody was a live, in concert, performance from 1954 though we’re not told where and is of convincing theatricality. Levy’s own Pieces for Piano conclude the discs. They were recorded by Columbia in March 1954 but never issued. No 6 is pensive, tonal, rather backward looking, with a slight Spanish tinge, whilst No 8 is full of bleakness. No 9 explodes with joyfulness and energy and No 18 has more than a touch of Prokofiev’s mordancy about it.

Most of these recordings derive from Unicorn Records LPs of the mid 1950s – they were produced by Bartók’s son, Peter and have a slightly shrill sound to them. Some rumble is also audible as well but nothing to detract from the fiery, dramatic, occasionally vexatious playing of Levy. Genius or not he was frequently a pianist of comet-like brilliance.

Jonathan Woolf

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