It’s nearly a decade now since Marston issued
in their series dedicated to Swiss-born pianist Ernst Levy, under the rubric ‘Forgotten Genius’. I notice that in this latest volume they have dropped the final blurb sentence that read; ‘His performances are not for the faint of heart’. Have they had a change of heart about the faintness of the hearer’s heart? Let’s assume so, though this latest volume provides endless examples of Levy’s wonderfully recreative imagination deployed in sometimes giddy onrushes of barely cogent playing.
Disc one is devoted to four sonatas by Haydn, Schubert’s Sonata in A, D664 and Franck’s Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue. Two of the Haydn sonatas, Hob, XVI/6 and Hob.XVI/30 were recorded in Basel in 1952 on a somewhat domestic set-up. They should be listened to in the context of the four sonatas in volume 2 which form part of Levy’s commercial discography and were taped in 1956. His viewpoint is an orchestral, recreationist one, with strong dynamics, powerful bass lines, and sometimes extreme fluctuation of tempi and mood. He finds some singing, unusually romanticised expression in the slow movement of the Sonata in G and some fanfares and rich colour, despite the relatively primitive recording, in the Sonata in A. His staccati are somewhat excessive in the sonata performances and the E minor, Hob. XVI/34, recorded in Cambridge, MA in 1955, witnesses a typical Levy gambit, in which his nervous rushing in the Presto opening movement, sounds more incomprehensible than exciting – try instead Wanda Landowska’s almost contemporaneous reading which honours Haydn the more by playing him simply. The sound for the Schubert sonata (6 April 1952) is slightly less good, indeed a bit watery, but the playing is better, more rhythmically precise and less prone to eccentricity. There are a few finger slips in the Franck Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue, which are of little consequence to me, but the Fugue is prone to be messy in places.
The second disc contains another version of Beethoven’s Op.109 sonata; you will find the other one on volume 2, his Unicorn LP disc of 1956, which was well transferred. This earlier studio recording, dating from 1953, is slightly broader but very similar in proportion. He approaches it gauntly, craggily, with abruptness and power to the fore. Some of the variations in the finale seem a touch slower than expected – though the overall tempi are finely realised - whilst others have challenging voicings, but the result is powerfully argued and clearly hugely committed. Of all the works in this twofer I would direct newcomers to his art to this single piece first. The two Brahms Rhapsodies demonstrate the huge tension he finds between externalised drama and interior lyricism. These are present to a marked degree. The B minor, intensely dramatic, just about survives this dichotomous approach but the G minor implodes. This, recorded live – perhaps that was a contributing reason – shows the unbridled individualism of Levy which manifests itself in a lack of discipline.
Once past a sullen opening the 1953 Liszt sonata – a 1956 version is on volume one – engenders some elemental pianism accompanied by wayward moments, so that one remains teetering on the brink of one’s own expectations as to what Levy will do next. The syntax is fractured, bars are rushed with incredible daring, voicings emerge as both novel and strange. He constructs a powerful, eccentric narrative, bass thickening the texture and constantly wilful but alive. After which the Ballade No.2 seems somewhat less Levy-like in its eccentricity. It was taped in 1959, once again in Cambridge, MA.
I think it’s probably impossible to take an agnostic view on Levy. But I do also think it’s possible to hold four or five views on his playing simultaneously, often during the course of a single piece. He is one of the most perplexing, remarkable musicians you are likely to come across, even in a field as crowded as that of iconoclastic pianists.