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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 - 1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 (1874) [32:32]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1868) [27:56]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Années de pélerinage, 2e année – Italie: Sonetto del Petrarca 104 (1858) [7:05]
Valse oubliée No.1, S215 [3:01]
Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)
Piano Concerto No.4 in D minor, Op.70 (1864) [34:48]
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Piano Concerto in D flat major, Op. 38 (1936) [35:13]
Oscar Levant (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy, rec. December 1947 (Tchaikovsky)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Efrem Kurtz, rec. December 1947 (Grieg)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Mitropoulos, rec. March 1952 (Rubinstein) and December 1949-January 1950 (Khachaturian)
rec April 1955 (Liszt)
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR416/7 [69:38 + 70:03]

It was often hard to separate the musician from the comedian when it came to Oscar Levant (1906-72) but time has a way of erasing complexities and confusions. When a twofer such as this appears, the complex psychology of Levant – a superb writer as well as a composer – recedes to its natural perspective and he can be judged purely as a pianist. Those astonishing grimaces and the bodily rictus, presumably induced by his drug addiction, that accompanied some of his American TV appearances are happily irrelevant in the context of these recordings made between 1947 and 1955.

His best-known recordings are the Gershwin ones – and how fortunate to be able to enjoy both Earl Wild and Levant in that repertoire – but he recorded this quartet of concertos with three of the leading conductors of the day: Ormandy, Kurtz and Mitropoulos. Clearly Godard ‘God’ Lieberson of Columbia had faith in Levant, faith that was rewarded with some often highly personalised but nevertheless often stunning pianism.

The Tchaikovsky was recorded with Ormandy in Philadelphia in 1947. It’s both commanding and seriously playful, Levant never sublimating the work’s more skittish aspects. He and Ormandy work well together and the Philadelphia Orchestra provides its accustomed lavish tonal lustre. The Grieg is rather more personalised in terms of phrasing and rubati. Levant’s pedaling and his desynchronisations are also worthy of note in this quite free but heartfelt reading recorded with Kurtz in New York a few days after the Tchaikovsky. Add rip-roaring accenting and powerful accelerandi and you have a very Levant reading indeed – one that intrigues and stimulates even as it may puzzle.

Anton Rubinstein’s Fourth Concerto still exerted a pull in 1952 when Levant recorded it in New York with Mitropoulos. Perhaps people remembered the great but troubled Josef Hofmann’s traversal with Karl Kruger in 1945, a reading that has fortunately been preserved. And in Moscow Grigory Ginzburg had already recorded his impressive version. Levant is slower than both men but plays with romantic richness and vibrant excitement whether in the lovely slow movement or the dynamic finale. The Khachaturian concerto, made a little earlier with the same forces, conforms to the broadly Nordic-Slavic slant to Levant’s discography at the time. There’s no flexatone in the second movement so listeners had to make do with a glockenspiel instead. Around this time there was a formidable trio of recordings of the work from the likes of Lympany, Katz and, somewhat later, the tragically short-lived Czech pianist Jemelík. Levant and Mitropoulos don’t hold back, whether in the work’s lurid or romantic paragraphs. A brace of Liszt works attests to his technical armoury as well as to his stylistic affinity with the composer.

There are no notes with this release which has sourced the US Columbia LPs and returned with well-engineered results presenting these performances in an excellent light.

Jonathan Woolf



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