Josef Lhévinne – playing all his 1906 and 1911 European interpretations; The Welte Mignon Mystery Volume XVI
Josef Lhévinne (piano)
rec. onto piano rolls 1906 and 1911
TACET 180 [49:19 + 57:56]

The commercial discography of pianist Josef Lhévinne (1874-1944) is pitifully small - a single CD’s worth and not jam-packed at that. Born in Oryol in Central Russia he studied with Vassily Safonov in Moscow, began his international career in the early 1890s, taught, returned to Moscow as a professor, and then moved on to Berlin. The pattern is unsettled but things got worse. He was interned during the First World War but was finally allowed to emigrate to America, from which base he resumed his international career and taught. In time the latter came to occupy much more of his time than performing. His wife Rosina was a fellow Gold Winner at the Moscow Conservatoire and also a formidable interpreter and teacher.

Those few precious discs are augmented by the piano rolls he made for Welte Mignon in 1906 and 1911. They have been finely reproduced by Tacet, who are one of the leading companies in this field, and whose booklets are full of important technical details as to the system’s operation, the numbers of the particular rolls, and well produced relevant photographs.

One of his warhorses was Schulz-Evler’s Arabesken über Themen des Walzers "An der schönen blauen Donau", the Blue Danube subjected to roulades of virtuosic wit. His Victor recording of May 1928 is a classic of its kind. He cuts the impressionistic shimmering introduction for the commercial 78, to fit it to a 6:59 length but for the roll he can take as much time as he likes, and he does, taking 8:20. But note that Naxos’s transfer of this same roll [8.110677] in their Welte-Mignon series comes up short at 7:48. My own view is that Tacet’s is the more accurate roll restoration, and it also doesn’t enshrine action noise as Naxos’s does. But this kind of thing illuminates only too clearly the dangers of roll reproduction and the vagaries of the system – let alone the editorial mediations that make it so conditional and provisional a method of analysing performance practice with any kind of assurance or objectivity.

Two other rolls were the subject of studio disc recordings. Schumann’s Toccata was set down in roll form in 1906, and recorded on 78 in 1935. The narrative dynamism of the disc is remarkable, the dynamics surging and cresting, the playing full of leonine command. By contrast the roll is a broken albatross; flat, unconvincing and relatively feeble. True, there is nearly thirty years between them, but the objection relates to the mechanics by which the sound is transferred or transformed (not Tacet’s responsibility, obviously). This is even truer perhaps of Chopin’s Etude Op. 25 No.10. The passionate sweep and rubato of the 1935 disc attests to a performance of committed excellence. The roll’s runs are alas mechanical, the schema of the playing rendered antiseptic.

One must be grateful that we can ‘hear’ Josef Lhévinne in repertory he didn’t set down in the studio – there is Liszt, Rubinstein, Weber and much else in these two discs – and one can enjoy speculating as to the performances he must have given. But contrasting the same pieces in both disc and roll form reinforces, yet again, how wrong it would be to take these artefacts at face value.

Jonathan Woolf

Full tracklist
CD 1
Paul de SCHLÖZER (1841-1898)
Étude de Concert Es-Dur op. 1 [2:50]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Étude h-Moll op. 25 No (“Oktavenetüde”)[ 3:21]
Benjamin Louis GODARD (1849-1895)
En route, Scherzo B-Dur op. 107 [3:54]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1848)
7 Charakterstücke op. 7; Presto F-Dur Nr. 7 [2:58]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915)
Nocturne für die linke Hand [4:54]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Toccata C-Dur op. 7 [6:42]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Die Loreley R591, Begleitung für Soprano [6:50]
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787) - Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Iphigenie in Aulis; Gavotte aus der Oper von Gluck [3:23]
Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Le Bal, Polka Op. 14 [5:16]
Andrei SCHULZ-EVLER (1852-1905)
Arabesken über Themen des Walzers “An der schönen blauen Donau” (Johann Strauss) [8:20]
CD 2
Carl CZERNY (1791-1857)
Kunst der Fingerfertigkeit; Oktaven-Etüde op. 740 No.5 [1:23]
Kamennoi-Ostrow op. 10/22 Rêve angèlique [7:35]
Giovanni SGAMBATI (1841-1914)
Quattro pezzi op. 18/2 Vecchio Minuetto [5:14]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827) Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835 - 1921)
Die Ruinen von Athen op. 113/4 - Chor der Derwische [2:25]
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854 - 1925)
Menuett G-Dur op. 17/2 [7:39]
Barcarole c-Moll op. 104/4 [9:36]
Album de Peterhof op. 75/9 - Prélude f-Moll [2:59]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Mazurka Nr. 23 D-Dur op. 33/2 [2:20]
Carl Maria von WEBER (1786 - 1826)
Sonate C-Dur op. 24 - “Perpetuum mobile”[3:39]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Étude c-Moll op. 25/12 [2:32]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Reminiszensen de “Robert le Diable” (Meyerbeer) [11:40]

Welte Mignon piano rolls finely reproduced by Tacet