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.