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ClassicsOnline Home » LEVITZKI, Mischa: Complete Recordings, Vol. 1 (1924-1928)
Great Pianists: Mischa Levitzki: Piano Recordings Vol. 1
On 18th October 1916, a review in The New York Times had this to say: "The name of Mischa Levitzki probably means little or nothing to most music lovers in New York. Those who went to his recital in Aeolian Hall yesterday afternoon found that it signifies a genuine talent in pianoforte playing and belongs to a musician whose first public appearance in New York furnished an agreeable surprise and gave much pleasure of a sort none too common in the performances of new and untried artists."
The writer was 53-year old Richard Aldrich, the newspapers respected critic and a trained pianist himself. Strangely, what he said then still holds true; the name of Mischa Levitzky means little or nothing to most people today. The reasons? Probably because he died young, of a heart attack, at the age of 42, at Avon-by-the-Sea, New Jersey, and did so on 2nd January 1941, when the events of the Second World War overshadowed everything else. But to start at the beginning, 25th May 1898, when Levitzki was born in Kremenchug, in the Ukraine. His parents, though Russian, were naturalised American citizens who were visiting their homeland at the time. Young Mischas original instrument was the violin, which he began studying at the age of three or four, but two years later he lost interest, giving the impression that he had no aptitude for music.
A piano owned by an aunt rekindled his curiosity, and after trying to play it he asked for formal lessons. His first teacher is said to have been a neighbour, and Mischas progress was so rapid that in 1905 he was accepted as a pupil of Aleksander Michalowski (1851-1938) at the Warsaw Conservatory. Michalowski had an impressive musical lineage. He had studied not only with Moscheles and Reinecke but also with Mikuli, a student of Chopin, and it is not fanciful to believe that his influence on one so young was considerable. In 1906, however, the Levitzki family decided to return to the United States and en route, in Antwerp, Mischa gave his first concert. Many years later, he recalled the occasion: "In an unguarded moment, some enthusiastic people arranged for me to give a recital in public. According to the clippings I was a success, but my parents prevented another scheduled concert. They did not permit me to appear again until I was sixteen".
Commendably, the child was not exploited. He had a normal schooling in both New York City and Brooklyn, but Levitzki père, also aware of the need for developing his sons talents, arranged an audition with Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Society. It resulted in a scholarship to study at the Institute of Musical Art in New York, founded in 1905 by Damroschs brother Frank. Levitzkis tutor until 1911 was Sigismund Stojowski (1870-1946) and he too had an impressive musical lineage. He had studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Louis Diémer, whose pupils included Robert Casadesus, Alfred Cortot and Yves Nat, and later with Paderewski.
Was it wanderlust, a fine instinct or good advice (possibly from Stojowski) that took Levitzki to Germany, probably in late 1911, to study with Ernö von Dohnányi? Whatever his hopes, they were initially dashed when the master, apparently prejudiced against prodigies, refused to consider him. Not to be outdone, Levitzki played in Brussels in 1912 (he was fourteen, not sixteen as he mistakenly recounted) and in Antwerp on 6th March 1913. The programme was ambitious, Bachs Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, Beethovens Waldstein Sonata, Schumanns Kinderszenen, a Chopin group and Liszts Hungarian Rhapsody No 13. Dohnányi (1877-1960), described by David Dubal as "the virtual czar of piano teaching", eventually relented and in 1913, enrolled Levitzki as the youngest student in his class at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. After a three-year course, during which he won the Mendelssohn prize and also appeared in concerts in a number of cities, Levitzki simply said, "I know of no greater teacher".
Levitzkis acclaimed Aeolian Hall début in 1916, and his subsequent decision to settle in the United States, might have been partially responsible for his high standing in that country. Just how high it was may also be gauged by his standing with Steinway & Sons, who, in the prosperous years before the economic depression of the 1930s, graded the artists using their pianos into four categories, A to D. Levitzki, along with Hofmann, Yolanda Merö and Paderewski, was in category A. Even the likes of Horowitz and Rachmaninov had to settle for category B. All the pianists in these two tiers enjoyed the best service from the company, though the four in group A also benefited from a $100 subsidy for each concert.
Popularity had a slightly bizarre side effect too. In the 1920s, Levitzki was briefly involved with Leopold Godowsky, Leo Ornstein and Artur Rubinstein in making and promoting piano rolls for the Ampico Company. In Rubinsteins words, "We had a funny and a little shameful concert tour together. We were obliged to listen on the stage to a piece played by us on the pianola and then repeated by a live performance". Thus, by comparing a piano roll recording with reality, the fidelity of the Ampico system could be demonstrated. Conventional appearances, however, were anything but "shameful" and Levitzi travelled the United States (over twenty tours), Europe, the Far East, Australia and New Zealand.
The published programmes that span the period 1913 to 1933 show that Levitzki tended to play a recital with one major work and then fill it out with small pieces, or excerpts from larger works that were popular; and the likes of the Gluck-Sgambati Mélodie dOrfée, the Gluck-Brahms Gavotte (played on many occasions, including at his United States début), Moskowskis La jongleuse, Liszts Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 and La Campanella, Tchaikovskys Troika, Scarlattis Sonata Kk113, Beethovens Ecossaise and Levitzkis own compositions were doubtless also recorded (some more than once) to satisfy his fans. Of the principal works, he chose from five Beethoven sonatas (three of them with the 32 Variations in C minor formed an all-Beethoven concert in Carnegie Hall on 25th November 1920), Chopins B minor Sonata and Schumanns Etudes Symphoniques. He also offered Schumanns Piano Concerto; and the Sonata in G minor, Op. 22, was set down for HMV, as was the pioneering recording of Liszts Piano Concerto No. 1.
Tantalisingly, Levitzkis repertoire, which could have included Beethovens Piano Concerto No. 3 for which he wrote a first movement cadenza, might have been larger than we have been led to believe. Had he lived longer, it would probably have been revealed, because his concerts and, consequently, recorded output would have reflected the tastes of post-war generations who preferred continuously substantial fare. Detractors, though, felt that Levitzkis musicianship was emotionally sterile, and so might have considered him unfit for new challenges. Horowitz was particularly scathing: "I heard another pianist in Berlin who had a big success and I thought he was awful Mischa Levitzki. Just fingers, and you cannot listen only to fingers. There is a difference between artist and artisan. Levitzki was an artisan."
Others disagreed. Abram Chasins said, "His compelling force resided in the greatness of his talent and the greatness of his heart", and, on a personal level, the singer Grace Moore wrote in her autobiography, "He was melancholy and romantic and we were happy and imagined ourselves in love". But to return to the musician: was he who was also keen on baseball and dancing only a shallow virtuoso? Dispassionate listeners need only listen to this disc to realise that there was more to Mischa Levitzki than "just fingers".
In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMGs Fritz Kreisler collection. According to the Chicago Tribune, Marstons name is synonymous with tender loving care to collectors of historical CDs. Opera News calls his work revelatory, and Fanfare deems him miraculous. In 1996 Ward Marston received the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his production and engineering work on Romophones complete recordings of Lucrezia Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mints Arturo Toscanini issue and BMGs Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the Best Historical Album Grammy.
Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a stint in radio while a student at Williams College, he became well-known as a reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932.
In the past, Ward Marston has produced records for a number of major and specialist record companies. Now he is bringing his distinctive sonic vision to bear on works released on the Naxos Historical label. Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as possible and true to life by lifting the voices off his old 78 rpm recordings. His aim is to promote the importance of preserving old recordings and make available the works of great musicians who need to be heard.
Among the fifty-three published 78rpm sides of Mischa Levitzki, there are no rarities. Yet, sixty-one years after his death, his records are still sought by collectors world-wide and his artistry is held in high esteem. Admittedly, Mischa Levitzki does not rank among the twentieth centurys greatest pianists, for that distinguished honor belongs to only a handful. His records, however, are distinguished for their directness of approach without ever being the least bit dull. They demonstrate a formidable technique, always under control, as well as a lovely sound guided by an unerring ear for subtlety and nuance.
Mischa Levitzkis first recordings were made for U. S. Columbia during the final two years of the acoustic recording era. They are excellent recordings for the time with just enough room ambiance to allow the piano tone to bloom. This is especially evident in Glucks Melodie (track one.) Fortunately, all ten sides were pressed on smooth shellac which yields reasonably quiet surfaces. For the present transfers, several mint condition copies of each disc were on hand. Mendelssohns Spring Song (track 3), published here for the first time was transferred from a single faced shellac test pressing. The only serious flaw in this group of records is the distortion heard during the final bars of Schuberts Marche Militaire. This was caused by over modulated grooves and is probably evident on all copies of the original disc.Levitzkis second recording of Chopins E minor Waltz, track thirteen, transferred from a white label test pressing, was recorded at the time when Columbia was just beginning to experiment with the electrical recording process. Several months later, Columbia adopted this method of recording and late in 1925, Mischa Levitzki made his only published electric Columbia, Liszts La campanella, transferred here from a mint American pressing.
In 1927, Levitzki was to begin an association with His Masters Voice which endured until 1933. Many of the resulting recordings were available on Australian pressings which are superior to their English counterparts. A sizable number were also issued by US Victor on quiet shellac. Wherever possible, I have used Australian and American pressings for the present transfers. This compact disc concludes with eight of Levitzkis HMV sides and volumes two and three will conclude the chronology. Volume Three will also contain Mischa Levitzkis two sides made by RCA Victor and two American broadcasts from the mid-1930s. Please stay tuned!
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LEVITZKI, Mischa: Complete Recordings, Vol. 1 (19...