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ClassicsOnline Home » LEVY, F.E.: Cello Concerto No. 1 / LEVY, E.: Cello Concerto (Ballantyne, Polish National Radio Symphony, Maull)
Ernst Lévy (1895–1981)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
Ernst Lévy, born in Switzerland in 1895 and very much a musical Wunderkind, was appointed to the piano faculty of the Basel Conservatory of Music by the time he was 21. When he was 25, he moved to Paris and quickly established himself. In 1928 he founded the Choeur Philharmonique, with which he conducted performances of major choral works, and recorded some of them for Polydor records. While living in Paris he married Else Hammerschlag, a Viennese woman whose father had been Mahler’s personal physician, and fathered two sons, Frank and Matthys.
As Europe was about to lapse into chaos, in 1939 Lévy’s family sailed to the United States, where he joined them in 1941. City University of New York professor Robert H. Lilienfeld, who has chronicled the achievements of both Ernst and Frank Lévy, starkly noted: “…he was one of the refugees who arrived in America in flight from the crisis of European civilisation which culminated in World War II”. One suspects that, were it not for Lévy’s intuition regarding the impending Holocaust, audiences would probably never have benefited from either his or his son’s compositional talents.
Once in the United States Lévy began a distinguished teaching career. Among his faculty appointments were tenures at such prestigious schools as MIT, New England Conservatory and the University of Chicago. During this time he composed prolifically. His works include fifteen symphonies, music for solo piano, concertos, choral works and chamber music for various combinations of instruments. The Concerto for Cello and Orchestra was written while he served on the faculty of Bennington College in Vermont.
Despite his teaching schedule and the many hours spent composing, Ernst Lévy continued to perform as a piano recitalist and recorded many works for Kapp, Unicorn and Columbia Records, among others. The 1954 Columbia performances were never released, but now have been made available on a Marston CD: ERNST LÉVY Forgotten Genius Plays Beethoven, Liszt and Lévy. Donald Manildi, in his notes accompanying the CD, states: “Lévy’s performances are not for the faint of heart”. Manildi is warm in his praise, but indicates that there are critics who strongly disagree. Lilienfeld, siding with Manildi, hails Lévy as “…one of the truly great pianists of his generation”.
Ernst Lévy possessed a powerful intellect that led him to probe many other disciplines including mathematics, architecture, physics, acoustics and philosophy. All of these influences made their way into the musical Gestalt of this remarkable artist who died in Switzerland in 1981.
Begun in late April of 1947, the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra was completed in a little more than one month. Lévy resisted or perhaps simply remained unaffected by the atonal influences that so permeated twentieth-century classical music. That is not to say one will not find dissonance in his music. It is certainly there, but his aesthetic choice is always to preserve tonality. Scored for pairs of woodwinds, contrabassoon, horns, trumpets, trombones, timpani, cymbal and strings, the orchestration of the concerto is spare by twentieth-century standards. It is composed in three movements that are performed without pause, an aspect that in no way hides the contrasting nature of each.
One important Ernst Lévy ‘trademark’ which abounds in the outer movements of the concerto is his disregard for traditional metric structure. Approaching composition as though he were a medievalist writing before the convention of using time signatures became common practice, the number of beats in each measure varies constantly. No ‘time signatures’ are ever provided by him—even when the content feels clearly in a standard metre—leaving the performers to interpret the metric structure as they play.
The introduction to the first movement begins tranquilly with the unaccompanied solo cello singing the principal motive. After a series of exchanges between soloist and winds, the pace quickens and intensifies, culminating in a syncopated brass chorale. A lyrical second theme now follows, accompanied at first by strings. The triumphant third motive is later introduced by the soloist and eventually played by the full orchestra before tapering to a single pitch in the low horn. This in turn serves as the connection to the next movement.
The second movement, Adagio, begins introspectively in triple meter. This poignant material is rhapsodically developed until, retrospectively, the first movement introduction is quoted. Lévy is not beginning again—this brief backward glance becomes the transition to the third movement.
The final Allegro begins as a pure rhythmic tease filled with syncopation. Structurally, the principal theme of the third movement is derived from the principal motive of the first. While originally presented in the first movement in a tranquil state, this idea is now running and skipping helter skelter. The lively dance-like material is juxtaposed throughout the movement with contrasting slower sections that are sometimes whimsical, sometimes earnest and even wrenching, while at other times innocently childlike in spirit—effectively creating a rondo. The final ‘run to the finish line’ is interrupted by one last backwards glance at both the syncopated brass chorale and the lyrical second theme from the first movement. Now the composer is ready to conclude.
Frank Ezra Lévy (b. 1930)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
Frank Ezra Lévy was born in Paris in 1930, the son of the composer Ernst Lévy and Else Hammerschlag Lévy, and immigrated to the United States at the age of nine. He arrived with his mother and brother, Matthys, just before the outbreak of World War II, and became an American citizen in 1955. His musical education began with cello studies in 1940 and included music theory and composition with Hugo Kauder.
Frank Lévy attended New York’s famous High School of Music and Art, where he distinguished himself as a cellist and composer, having had some of his early compositions performed on WNYC radio’s American Music Festival. He was also principal cellist of the High School of Music and Art Orchestra and a member of the School String Quartet. From 1948 to 1951 he attended The Juilliard School, studying with the renowned cellist Leonard Rose, and graduating in 1951 with a Bachelor of Science degree.
The following winter he began postgraduate work at the University of Chicago, leaving for one year to play in the St Louis Symphony, and then returning to complete his master’s programme. The subject of his master’s dissertation’ was ETA Hoffman: From Music to Literature. He received his Master of Arts degree in 1954. While in Chicago, he also continued his cello studies with the well-known Hungarian cellist János Starker.
From 1954 to the present he has earned a living as a professional cellist in New York City and has continued to compose. He now has 72 published works to his credit, including four symphonies and a large variety of chamber music works. His Third Symphony was given its première at Carnegie Hall on 22 June 1989, in a performance conducted by David Gilbert, who also conducted his Holocaust Triptych at the Manhattan School of Music in February 1993. The Triptych is described by City University Professor Robert Lilienfeld as: “…a vocal work in three parts for bass soloist and small instrumental ensemble: first—the Sh’ma Yisrael; second—a poem by a Holocaust survivor, and third—a Psalm”. In 1994 Lévy’s Fourth Symphony was recorded for the MMC label by the Bratislava Orchestra and released in 1995.
Later works include his Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra, Symphony Concertante for Two Violins and Orchestra, A Summer Overture for Orchestra,a Piano Quartet and a Violin Concerto. As of this writing, Frank Lévy’s most recent works are Mothers Day, a comic opera in four acts, derived from an ancient Greek satire by Aristophanes and completed in 1999, and a second Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano.
Frank Lévy’s Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra is an intensely personal work. It was completed in 1995. Scored for more exotic forces than his father’s concerto, it uses not only pairs of all the winds, but also calls for piccolo, English horn, bass clarinet, harp and a large percussion section in addition to the usual complement of strings.
The first movement, Poco Allegro ma Agitato, begins with the soloist immediately playing the ruminating, restless first theme in six-eight metre. This theme is shared by other instruments in the orchestra and develops almost in variation form as the movement progresses. For all of the timbres potentially available to him, Lévy does not array them against the soloist, but instead uses them very sparingly, even delicately in this section. Later, a passionate outburst of double stops in the solo part heralds a new, more rhapsodic section—still based on the first theme. This gives way to a slowly and powerfully built, massive tutti that delivers one of the movement’s emotional peaks. A second theme, more driving than the first, arrives. After its statement, the technical demands on the soloist begin to incrementally increase, and a great drama unfolds here. First, another passage of double stops is followed by a passage of continuous arpeggios which accompany very simple obligato lines. Finally, two orchestral chords announce the demanding cadenza. The coda that commences quickly evaporates into thin air.
Adagio is the tempo of the second movement, and as soon as the soloist enters we know that an intense song of longing, perhaps laced with sorrow, is being played. Forward progress is temporarily interrupted by very skilfully orchestrated moments that almost seem to ask the question “Why?” “What is the meaning behind this suffering?” The cello then continues the narrative in earnest, pleading for answers. A Più mosso in the major mode that follows may not provide the answer, but at least suggests that some brighter future may be possible. This optimistic vision is taken up by the soloist and verified by another massive tutti. Before concluding, the first movement’s principal theme is quoted and a soulful English horn and trumpet respond.
If the Adagio leaves the listener waiting for an answer, the Allegro Vivace finale, also a rondo like the third movement of his father’s concerto, certainly responds to the challenge. After a devilishly difficult introductory moment shared by the solo cello and xylophone, a buoyant, life-affirming theme springs forth. Its constantly changing metres keep us pleasantly off balance. Certainly there are a few ‘growls of displeasure’ to be found in the intervening contrasting sections. But, with every return of the A section, one cannot help but smile at Frank Lévy’s wonderful sense of humour. Obviously, the contrasts also provide opportunities for the soloist to shine in pyrotechnic displays. The coda permits the orchestra’s cellos and basses to show their rhythmic muster, and the soloist to display the truly visceral side of the cello—not frequently heard, but very enjoyable. Seconds later, when the timpani is added to the mix, the listener may revel in the sheer fun of the cross-rhythms. A spectacular ending, led by the strings, brings this brilliant movement to an end.
Finally, regarding both of these concertos, Robert Lilienfeld sums it up best when he writes: “Words can never adequately describe a composition. Listening will. Repeated listening will do much more. Your move!”
Howard Jordan, 2001
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LEVY, F.E.: Cello Concerto No. 1 / LEVY, E.: Cello...