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Marston Recordings

Ernst Levy - Forgotten Genius in Concert: Volume 3
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Sonata No.7 in D Op.10 No.3 (1897-98) [25.08]
Piano Sonata No.15 in D Op.28 Pastorale (1801) [19.52]
Piano Sonata No.21 in C Op.53 Waldstein (1803-04) [25.59]
Piano Sonata No.23 in F minor Op.57 Appassionata (1804) [20.43]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Symphonic Etudes Op.13 (1834-37, revised 1852) [18.33]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G.F. Handel Op.24 (1861)[21.58]
Klavierstücke Op.118 (1892)
Intermezzo in A minor No.1 [1.56]
Intermezzo in A No.2 [6.54]
Ballade in G minor No.3 [3.09]
Ernst Levy (piano)
Recorded in recital – Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Beethoven Opp. 10/3 and 53) December 1955, Huntington Hall, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Beethoven Op.13) January 1955, Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Mass (Beethoven Op.57), February 1955, Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Brahms-Handel), March 1959, Cambridge, Mass (Schumann, Brahms Klavierstücke), November 1954.
MARSTON 52039-2 [71.03 + 73.14]

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Previous volumes in the Levy series:-

It’s best to read this review in the light of my previous examinations of the Levy Phenomenon, already documented in the first two volumes issued by Marston. His biographical story and his intellectual and musical horizons are noted there. Levy is one of those musicians for whom a Health Warning is necessary on the back of the jewel case; in this case: His performances are not for the faint of heart. Everything I’ve heard leads me to second that judgement with the corollary that his recordings are of such personalised power that they demand a hearing.

Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms constitute the heavyweight programme in recitals given in 1954, 1955 (the bulk) and 1959. Sound quality obviously varies though it never falls beneath the serviceable and is often very good such as the Op.10 No.3 sonata performance. This certainly opens at a Presto - and no mistake – but is then subjected to so many ramifications of rubati, agogics and tempo fluctuations that it soon leads to a kind of phrasal compaction. Levy’s avoidance of a regular tempo is part of an almost mathematical extremism, his continual surge and release of phrases part of a larger emotive swelling. Similarly the Largo is heroically slow and italicised, not unlike Tureck’s later Bach recordings in its microscopic analytical schema. The non-legato approach, fused with a deliberate lack of sustain or warmth or indeed pedal, adds its own ominous chill. There is a lengthy analysis in the notes of what Levy does in the Minuet, or maybe to the Minuet. I must say here that the lifeless corpse of this movement, so drained of rhythm, or anything approaching motion, has its own horrible fascination. And the weird, sectional, non-linear Rondo finale – replete with staccati and perfectly non-legato – has its own abrupt sound world that will be far removed from most people’s experience. And in the Waldstein one hears the same battery of idiosyncrasies – of articulation, tempo, and phrasing. One never goes more than a few bars without incursions of this kind and the result is a bewildering sense of dislocation and otherness, of re-sculpting and re-aligning the music in the light of a powerful sense of the unresolved tension and drama engendered by Levy.

The Appassionata was recorded in 1955 and the sound is a touch more subterranean but it’s still acceptable. Here the Dionysian seems to gain the upper hand; this is disruptive, dangerous playing that seems to ride roughshod over bar lines, metre and any semblance of normalcy in Beethovenian pianism. The way Levy highlights or picks at notes and phrases with such unexpected determination in the slow movement is another example of his remorseless examination of the otherness of these canonic works. If one thinks this playing off-kilter and absurd – and there’s clearly a case to be made that it is – one should note that behind the apparent caprice Levy had an acute and penetrating mind; his decisions are not random.

I’d be repeating myself too much to run through his Schumann with a fine-toothed comb. Objections – yes, certainly. A non-narrative sense of discursiveness, too much pedal, some forcing through the tone, holding chords too long, a frantic aspect, confused voicings (variation VII) and textual lack of clarity; finally a heroic approach to the (non) establishment of a tempo – in the finale – and wildly exaggerated accelerandos and decellerandos. And in its favour? More difficult to say - maybe a sense of the wildness of the music, its unpredictability. It won’t do as a corrective - because what is it supposed to be correcting? - but it’s remarkable to hear. On a technical note I should add that there’s quite a deal of hiss. The same objections to the playing are not true of the Brahms-Handel to such an extent but it’s the kind of playing that had me scurrying to Solomon’s recording anyway. How odd then to find that the 1954 Brahms recordings are so very different from the Schumann. Difficult to believe it’s the same pianist, really.

The notes are once again strongly reflective of pro-Levy feeling and rightly so, of course, given the nature of the performances and the bewildered response they will generate in most quarters (and of course equally they will engender iconoclast support in others). Specialists and those strong of heart will snap up volume 3. If you want to know where a pianist can take the Symphonic Etudes or the Op.10 No.3 Sonata I suggest you beg or borrow this disc and prepare to be appalled, shocked, horrified, amazed, stunned, bewildered, elated, confused or just plain pole-axed.

Jonathan Woolf


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