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Josef Lhévinne (piano)
The Complete Josef Lhévinne
rec. 1920-1942
MARSTON 53023-2 [3 CDs: 213:43]

In contrast to four of his colleagues and contemporaries, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Moritz Rosenthal, Josef Hofmann and Wilhelm Backhaus, Josef Lhévinne (1874-1944) left us very few commercial recordings. What this amounts to is 11 minutes of sonically poor Pathé acoustics and less than 40 minutes of electricals made for Victor in the 1930s. Fortunately, some broadcasts and private recordings have surfaced over time, and these are also included in this recent Marston release.

Lhévinne hailed from the Russian city of Orel, south of Moscow. He trained under Vassily Safonov at the Moscow Conservatory, where he made rapid progress. A critic wrote after an early performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto that the young pianist had “colossal technique, perfect tone and a lot of musicality”. In 1892 he graduated and went on to win the Anton Rubinstein prize in 1895. This marked the launch of his career, and he toured Russia and Europe giving concerts, interrupted by a spell of military service. In 1898 he married Rosina Bessie, herself an accomplished pianist. Both husband and wife frequently gave concerts and recorded together. Josef became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory for a short time. In 1906 he made his American debut and toured the States. After a period of internment in Berlin during World War 11, the couple moved to New York and eventually joined the staff of the Juilliard School.

Due to the difficulties Pathé Frères had exporting their discs to the USA during World War 1, recording engineer Russell Hunting set up a branch in New York in 1915. Lhévinne, who had arrived in the city with his wife in October 1919, made his first commercial recordings with the company shortly after. Tchaikovsky’s Trepak was set down in December 1920, followed by three recordings in January 1921. These acoustical ventures are somewhat dimly lit, with a fair degree of surface noise. The Trepak and Rachmaninoff G minor Prelude are both rhythmically charged, and the Schumann/Tausig El Contrabandista dazzles with its glistening filigree.

When it comes to the electricals we fast forward to 1928 when Lhévinne's contract with Victor began. On 1 May that year he set down his pièce de résistance, the virtuoso showpiece, a challenging arrangement of Strauss' “Blue Danube” waltz by Adolf Schulz -Evler. The booklet writer says of this recording that it has “never been surpassed in charm, panache and rhythmic aplomb”. I don’t entirely agree. I think the version by Byron Janis is equally as fine, but even better is Jorge Bolet’s 1974 live traversal from Carnegie Hall where there are fewer cuts, and greater care is taken to highlight inner voices. Seven years elapsed before the Schumann Toccata was recorded in June 1935. Dispatched with unbridled virtuosity, this is a reading that truly catches fire. Then there’s the entrancingly shaped line of the Schumann/Liszt Frühlingsnacht. The Chopin selection contains a wonderful Étude Op. 10, No. 11, where the melody line is brought into sharp focus against pristine gleaming arpeggiated chords. In Op. 25, No. 6 the thirds are even and brightly polished. Op. 25, No. 11 is feverish and intensely potent. The Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53 is truly heroic and dashing. Josef is partnered by Rosina in Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos in D major, K 488. It’s difficult, listening to the two takes, both recorded on the same day, to understand why they were turned down for release. The second version has less surface noise and is preferable, at least to my ears. The performance shows a compelling meeting of minds and singularity of vision between the two pianists.

The live broadcasts are a welcome addition to the set, and significantly bolster the pianist’s slender discography. These live inscriptions, not always complete, have been lovingly restored and bring the music to life once more. Husband and wife are joined by the New York Philharmonic, under the inspirational baton of Sir John Barbirolli Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 7 in a CBS broadcast dated 29 October 1939. The outer movements bristle with energy and spirit, whilst the slow movement has an inward quality of luminous warmth. In a WQXR broadcast on 30 December 1942, Lhévinne got together for a performance of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 with the Perolé Quartet, a respected American ensemble of the interwar period. I’m amazed that it’s survived in such good sound. Also, one has to be thankful to be able to hear the pianist collaborating in chamber music. What you hear is confident playing with a compelling sense of abandon, and striking lucidity of textures. With regard to the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, there are two incomplete torsos, one consisting of the last two movements, from an NBC broadcast aired 23 February 1933, and another from Worcester, Massachusetts 6 October 1936 with some bars missing in the first movement. Nevertheless they give us a faithful picture of Lhévinne’s leonine approach to this warhorse. Sound quality in both performances is acceptable for their age and provenance.

Lhévinne’s commercial recordings have surfaced in previous incarnations. I’ve never heard the Naxos version, but do possess the Novello issued in 1989, so it was interesting to do a comparison with the latter. Marston’s new transfers breathe new life into these recordings, and they sound considerably brighter, with a greater sense of presence. The accompanying documentation, which gathers together a fine collection of photographs, includes contributions from Jonathan Summers and Ward Marston himself. It lacks nothing in providing all the background required.

Stylish playing, phenomenal technique, unassailable musicality and passionate commitment – it’s all here, and gets my enthusiastic thumbs up.
Stephen Greenbank
CD 1 [71:45]
American Pathé, New York City
1. Trepak from Eighteen Pieces for Piano, Op. 72 [3:19]
December 1920; (68894-2) 59057
2. Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5 [3:21]
January 1921; (68892-3) 59057
3. Écossaises [2:38]
January 1921; (69068-1) 27036
4. El Contrabandista [2:07]
January 1921; (69067-2) 27036
Victor Talking Machine Company, Camden, New Jersey
5. Arabesques on Themes from the Beautiful Blue Danube [7:00]
1 May 1928; (CVE43445-9 and CVE43446-12) Victor 6840
RCA Victor, New York City
6. Toccata in C, Op. 7 [5:28]
7 June 1935; (CS92223-1 and CS92224-1) Victor 8766
7. Frühlingsnacht [2:38]
7 June 1935; (CS92224-1) Victor 8766
RCA Victor, New York City
8. Etude in E-flat, Op. 10, No. 11, “Harp” [2:28]
10 June 1935; (CS89883-1) Victor 8868
9. Etude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 6, “Double Thirds” [1:58]
10 June 1935; (CS89883-1) Victor 8868
10. Etude in B Minor, Op. 25, No. 10, “Octave” [3:32]
10 June 1935; (CS89884-1) Victor 14024
11. Etude in A Minor, Op. 25, No. 11, “Winter Wind” [3:35]
10 June 1935; (CS89882-1) Victor 8868
12. Prelude in A-flat, Op. 28, No. 17 [3:24]
6 January 1936; (CS98615-2) Victor 14024
13. Prelude in B-flat Minor, Op. 28, No. 16 [1:13]
6 January 1936; (CS98615-2) Victor 14024
14. Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53 [6:10]
6 January 1936; (BS98613-1 and BS98614-1) Victor 1765
15. Fêtes (Nocturne No. 2) [5:44]
with Rosina Lhevinne
11 June 1935; (BS89889-1 and BS89890-1) Victor 1741
Sonata for Two Pianos in D, K. 448
with Rosina Lhevinne
23 May 1939; (CS92225-2); 11 June 1935; (CS89886-1, CS89887-1, CS89888-1) unpublished on 78 rpm
16. I. Allegro con spirito [5:15]
17. II. Andante 6:30
18. III. Allegro molto [5:24]

CD 2 [79:46]
RCA Victor, New York City (continued)
Sonata for Two Pianos in D, K. 448
with Rosina Lhevinne
23 May 1939; (CS92225-3, CS92226-2, CS92227-4, CS92228-3) unpublished on 78 rpm
1. I. Allegro con spirito [5:15]
2. II. Andante [6:23]
3. III. Allegro molto [5:34]
CBS broadcast, 29 October 1939
Piano Concerto No. 7 in F, K. 242 (Arranged for Two Pianos)
with Rosina Lhevinne
New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli
4. I. Allegro [9:21]
5. II. Adagio [7:46]
6. III. Rondo: Tempo di Menuetto [7:02]
WQXR broadcast, 30 December 1942
Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25
with members of the Perolé String Quartet
7. I. Allegro [12:44]
8. II. Allegro, ma non troppo [8:51]
9. III. Andante con moto [9:31]
10. IV. Presto: Rondo alla zingarese [7:20]

CD 3 [62:22]
BROADCASTS (continued)
NBC broadcast, 23 February 1933
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
with NBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Rosario Bourdon
1. Introductory announcement [0:31]
2. II. Andantino semplice—Prestissimo [7:04]
3. III. Allegro con fuoco [7:28]
4. Prelude in A-flat, Op. 28, No. 17 [4:12]
5. Etude in G-sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 6, “Double Thirds” [2:03]
Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, 24 October 1935
6. Etude in A Minor, Op. 25, No. 11, “Winter Wind” [3:29]
The Magic Key, 3 November 1935
7. Introductory announcement [0:43]
8. Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53 [6:07]
Non-commercial private recording made during the 1936 Worcester Festival
6 October 1936, Worcester, Massachusetts
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
with the Worcester Festival Orchestra, conducted by Albert Stoessel
9. I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso—Allegro con spirito [15:48]
(bars 1-101 were not recorded; the last beat of bar 601 and the first two beats of bar 602 are missing)
10. II. Andantino semplice—Prestissimo [6:33]
11. III. Allegro con fuoco [7:09]
12. Prelude in B-flat Minor, Op. 28, No. 16 [1:14]

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