Great Pianists of the 20th century -
Josef Lhévinne (1874 - 1944) & Rosina Lhévinne (1880 - 1976)
Beethoven/Busoni - Ecossaise; Chopin - Etudes in E-flat, in G-sharp minor, in B minor, in A minor; Preludes in B-flat minor, in A-flat, Polonaise in A-flat; Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor; Debussy/Ravel - Fêtes (for two pianos); Mozart - Sonata for 2 pianos in D; Piano Concerto No.21 in C; Rachmaninov - Prelude in G minor; Schumann - Toccata in C; Schumann/Liszt - Frülingsnacht; Schumann/Tausig - Der Kontrabandiste; Strauss/Schulz-Evler - Arabeques on The Blue Danube; Tchaikovsky - Trépak
Josef Lhévinne, piano / Rosina Lhévinne, piano / Julliard Orchestra (Mozart K.466) / Alumni of the National Orchestral Association (Chopin E minor concerto) / Jean Morel, conductor (Mozart) / John Barnett, conductor (Chopin) (Philips 456 889 - 2) (2 CDs)
Click to listen to an extract of this disc: either as streaming Realaudio or download the sound clip.
Category: Orchestral - Instrumental - Classical - Romantic - 20th-century
It would be easy to forget that a large number of great musicians devote a lot of their time to teaching, but as much as they usually profess a love for it, you wouldn't really expect them to make it their full-time occupation.
But that was exactly what world-class Russian pianists, Josef Lhévinne and Rosina Bessie, did when they emigrated to the United States and started their celebrated teaching stint at the Julliard School in New York from 1924, making it one of the finest piano schools in the world. They got married to each other in 1898, and formed a legendary musical partnership that was to have inspired many. Both were formidable pianists to begin with, for both were gold medallists upon graduation from the Moscow Conservatory.
Lhévinne, who plays all the solo piano works in this collection, enjoyed a brilliant concert career both within and outside Russia, feted for his prodigious technical prowess and remarkably unostentatious musicality. For those who believe that the Golden Age of pianism was built on extrovert personality and impeccable musicianship rather than technique, and for those who criticize the younger generation of flawless virtuosos for having good fingers and nothing else, Lhévinne's career should serve as a good compromise. His training was built upon an old, rock-solid Russian tradition which insisted on a perfectly schooled technique. This unwielding, perhaps even punishing focus on technical equipment may seem to some to be totally missing the point, but Lhévinne reminds us that without it, one can do very little else, however musical or talented one might think oneself to be. (Now, don't you just wish some well-known pianists could have been just a little fussier with their scales and arpeggios during piano lessons, like, dare I say it, Cortot and Schnabel?)
Armed with such a flawless technique, an innate good taste, and an aristocratic musical personality, Lhévinne made many fans and admirers and some exceptional recordings, most of which long lost, and now, finally gathered here on this two-disc compilation, available to a wider audience for the first time in many decades.
He was not a flashy virtuoso, yet there was no lack of fireworks and blazing passion when the music called for it (he was Russian after all!). Just sample the B minor Etude by Chopin, which is a tour de force of masterly control and brilliant virtuosity, or the E-flat Etude for its stunning delicacy at a flowing tempo, or the A minor Etude for its jaw-dropping ease in execution. The other solo items are similarly enticing and fresh, full of delicate nuances, embraced with fine musicianship and towering yet sympathetic personality. The A-flat Polonaise becomes an unusually disquieting affair rather than the usual barnstorming fireworks display. The Blue Danube Arabesque is justly famous: witty, full of flair and seemingly effortless.
Rosina Lhévinne, on the other hand, was keen to remain in her husband's shadow throughout her entire career, but as these recordings show, it only obscured the fact that she too was a pianist of genuine stature.
The so-called 'Elvira Madigan' Mozart concerto has a sparkle and a daring drive that prove most invigorating. But this is no reckless bull in a china shop: it is truly an example of the miracle of the interpreter's art in how she remains unflinchingly poised and elegant, even in the excessively flamboyant, and (dubiously inappropriately) exhilarating first movement cadenza. The Chopin E minor concerto is similarly commanding.
The two two-piano items are, expectedly, delightful. Eyebrows would certainly be raised at their hair-raising account of Mozart's sonata, played in all its true virtuoso glory, but the infectious joie de vivre and their uncompromising drive make this a uniquely exhilarating experience. The Debussy Fêtes is a sweeping success.
The recordings, dating as far back as 1920, are of variable standard, mostly with little or no background noise, although somewhat claustrophobic in many of the solo items. But the two concertos with Mme Lhévinne are presented in gloriously rich and 'present' stereo sound. Like the rest of the titles in this exciting series, the accompanying notes are excellent, and also contain a glowing tribute from Van Cliburn, one of Mme Lhévinne's most famous pupils.
Not to be missed!
Written by Lionel Choi
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Copyright © 1998 Lionel H Y Choi