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ClassicsOnline Home » LEVITSKI, Mischa: Complete Recordings, Vol. 2 (1927-1933)
Great Pianists: Mischa Levitzki: Complete Recordings Vol. 2
Levitzki’s parents were from the Ukraine but had taken
American citizenship and happened to be on a visit to their homeland when
Mischa was born on 25th May 1898. At the age of three he began studies on the
violin and at six began to learn to play the piano. Levitzki studied with the
great Polish pianist Alexander Michalowski in Warsaw when he was seven, and
made his concert début a year later in Antwerp. He then travelled in 1908 with
his parents to New York, where his father arranged for him to play for Frank
Damrosch, brother of Walter Damrosch, at that time director of the Boston
Symphony Orchestra. Frank Damrosch was director of the recently opened
Institute of Musical Art in New York, which was later to become the Juilliard
School of Music. The eleven-year-old Levitzki won a scholarship to study there
for two years with the Polish pianist and teacher Sigismond Stojowski, who had
been a pupil of Paderewski. When Levitzki was thirteen he went to Berlin with
his mother to study with Ernö Dohnányi at the Hochschule für Musik. The class
was only open, however, to pianists of sixteen and over, but after Levitzki
stunned the entrance board of examiners with his performance of Mendelssohn’s
Piano Concerto in G minor, the boy was admitted.
Levitzki made his New York début in 1916. This led to
further engagements in America and from then on Levitzki led the life of a
successful touring virtuoso. After the First World War he was one of the first
major pianists to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1921, and he made an
extended tour of the Orient in 1925–26.
During the 1920s he was an extremely popular and successful pianist.
Interestingly, Vladimir Horowitz, who heard him at this time, did not like his
playing. In his book Vladimir Horowitz – Life and Music, Harold Schonberg
quotes Horowitz as saying, ‘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. But Ignaz Friedman, who I admired, was a
great artist’. It is worth noting that in the same interview Horowitz said of
the great pianist Moriz Rosenthal ‘…I hated his playing. He couldn’t make one
nice phrase. I don’t understand how he got his fame…..I don’t think he really
knew how to play the piano. He didn’t make music’. It is also worth remembering
that during the early 1930s the piano company of Steinway and Sons divided
their roster of artists into separate groups and in the highest, group A, were
Ignace Paderewski, Josef Hofmann, Yolanda Merö and Mischa Levitzki. These
pianists received a $100 subsidy from Steinway for each concert they gave.
Horowitz and, it must be said Rachmaninov too, were on the B list and did not
receive the subsidy.
It was not until 1927 that Levitzki made his London début.
He played Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and
Thomas Beecham and gave no less than three recitals at the Queen’s Hall, a much
larger venue than the Wigmore Hall, a more usual venue for recital débuts. He
played a conventional programme opening with a Bach-Liszt transcription (which
appears in Vol. 1 of this series), and including Beethoven’s Appassionata
Sonata, a group of Chopin and some Debussy and Ravel. At his third recital on
the 9th November 1927 he played Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, but unfortunately
he did not record any of the Beethoven piano sonatas. On the two days preceding
the third recital Levitzki made his first recordings for HMV in Studio C of the
Small Queen’s Hall. None of the eleven sides were issued, and he returned for
two more sessions on the 15th and 16th December. From these sessions come the
Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6 and the first take of La Campanella. Levitzki
plays this work at a slower tempo than is usually heard reminding us that it is
marked Allegretto. He recorded two more takes of this work at his session of
22nd November 1928 and requested that take 4 should from then on be the issued
take. This is why takes 1 and 4 were published and both are included on this
Levitzki was not the first pianist to record the Piano
Concerto No. 1 by Liszt. It had been recorded for HMV in 1922 by Liszt’s pupil
Arthur de Greef, but that was in the days of acoustic recording. Alexander
Brailowsky had recorded it for Polydor and there was even a version by the
English pianist Anderson Tyrer with the British Symphony Orchestra conducted by
Adrian Boult available in 1926. Levitzki’s recording is that of a young man; a
brilliant, vibrant performance full of sparkling finger-work which sounds
better than ever in this new transfer. Although the complete concerto was
recorded in Kingsway Hall in November 1929 only one side could be used and the
whole work was recorded again three days later in the Queen’s Hall. As The
Gramophone said at the time, ‘The Liszt is recorded to admiration. I think I
like Levitzki as well as anyone I have heard recorded in this work’.
Levitzki played Schumann’s rarely heard Piano Sonata No. 2
in a Queen’s Hall recital in March 1928. During the late 1920s he gave up to
three solo recitals per year in the large Queen’s Hall in London, but by 1933
he was giving only two at London’s smaller Wigmore Hall. Perhaps his popularity
had begun to wane. In March 1933 at the Wigmore Hall he played Schumann’s Piano
Sonata No. 2 again and the same week recorded it for HMV. By this time the
critics were not so enthusiastic about Levitzki. ‘Mr Levitzki is an
accomplished virtuoso, and when that has been said there is little to add about
his playing.’ We can hear his performance of this Schumann sonata recorded a
day or two after his Wigmore Hall recital. In it, Levitzki’s clarity and strong
sense of rhythm can be heard and in the Andantino his pure singing tone is
highlighted. Detractors of Levitzki’s art have accused him of being emotionally
detached and concerned only with technique. It is true that some of his
recordings display a strict underlying rhythm that is often too brusque and
inflexible, yet his Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies show talent, technique and taste
and the full sound he obtains in the opening chords of Rhapsody No. 13 is
beautifully balanced. As Abram Chasins said of him, ‘He was a vibrant master
workman; everything was pure radiance; every note shone like a sunbeam’.
© Jonathan Summers
In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical
Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMG’s Fritz Kreisler collection.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Marston’s 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 Romophone’s complete recordings of Lucrezia
Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mint’s Arturo
Toscanini issue and BMG’s 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.
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