Josef Lhévinne was the ninth child of Arkady Levin who was a trumpeter from Łódź. Young Josef was a prodigy, playing the piano at three, and from the age of six was having lessons with a local Swedish-born piano teacher and choir director named Nils Krysander. At eleven he played Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata and the Pilgrim’s March from Wagner’s Tannhäuser arranged by Liszt at a soirée where the Grand Duke Constantine was present. The Duke asked Josef if he wanted to study at the Moscow Conservatory and at Josef’s affirmative answer the Duke spoke to a wealthy banker known for his munificence. Josef’s father requested Vassily Safonov as the piano teacher for his son at the Conservatory, and Josef received daily lessons at which his whole approach to piano playing was drastically altered.
When he was fourteen, Lhévinne was told that the great pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein was to visit the Conservatory and that he should play for him. After Rubinstein had heard other students for more than two hours Safonov asked Rubinstein what he would like to hear from Lhévinne. ‘Let him play everything!’ was the reply, and before young Josef commenced the C minor Étude of Chopin Rubinstein shook his big head and shouted, ‘Make it stormy!’ As Lhévinne related years later, ‘I played it with all my strength and power. Rubinstein jumped to his feet, kissed me, and wrung my hand. “You are a big, big boy”, he said. “Work hard and you will be a great man!” ’
In November 1889 a gala concert was held at the Moscow Conservatory to celebrate the golden jubilee of Anton Rubinstein. Rachmaninov played some four-hand piano music with another student, and Lhévinne accompanied a cellist in Rubinstein’s Cello Sonata Op. 11 No. 2. Rubinstein then asked Safonov for Lhévinne to play in the annual benefit concert for widows and orphans of musicians. It was an all-Beethoven concert and the fifteen-year-old Lhévinne played Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, No. 5 in E flat Op. 73, with Rubinstein conducting. Nicholas Kashkin, Moscow’s most influential critic at the time, wrote in the Russkie Vedomosti: ‘The young pianist J. Lhévinne’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto had a huge success… One can without fear predict for this youth a very brilliant future. In his playing were united all the qualities necessary for a virtuoso: colossal technique, perfect tone, and a lot of musicality. In respect to the last, he expressed such maturity as one would never expect from someone his age.’ Lhévinne graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 with the gold medal. He was in good company; his colleagues and fellow winners that year included Rachmaninov and Scriabin.
In August 1895 Lhévinne went to Berlin, where he won the coveted Anton Rubinstein Prize of 5000 francs. Of thirty-three candidates Lhévinne was finally selected as the winner with his performance of Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat Op. 94, the Berlin New Philharmonic Orchestra being conducted by Professor Klindworth. Lhévinne then embarked on a tour of Russia followed by his first tour of Europe comprising forty concerts arranged by Hermann Wolff. In January 1896 he played with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Willem Mengelberg, then made his Paris debut with the Lamoureux Orchestra. At this point he was recalled to Moscow for compulsory military service and was unable to fulfil all his concert dates. Two years later Lhévinne married Rosina Bessie, herself a pianist who survived her husband by thirty-two years, dying in 1976 at the age of 96. Born in Kiev in 1880, Rosina had also graduated from the Moscow Conservatory with the gold medal.
In 1903 Lhévinne made his debut in London, and when he returned in 1912, again with Safonov as conductor, he performed with the London Symphony Orchestra a concert of three piano concertos: Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat Op. 73, and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23.
After teaching at Tiflis, Lhévinne became a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, and on 27 January 1906 he made his debut at Carnegie Hall. A critic wrote: ‘…an immediate and a really sensational success. An attempt has been made lately to introduce a new “Rubinstein” to local audiences but the real Rubinstein II is Mr Lhévinne. He has the great Anton’s technique, his dash and bravura, his brilliancy and a good deal of his leonine power. He can make a piano sing too.’ In the following tour of America Lhévinne played more than one hundred concerts.
Until the end of World War I, the Lhévinnes were based in Berlin where Josef had a teaching and performing career, but after the experience of being interned during the war, in 1919 they moved to New York. It was in 1922 that Lhévinne was asked to join the staff of the newly formed Juilliard Graduate School of Music, and both he and Rosina taught here from 1924. In that year Lhévinne published a short book entitled Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing. This is an extremely valuable book, (reprinted in 1972) from which many students would still benefit. Successful tours of South America and Europe took place in 1926, 1928 and 1937.
Lhévinne was a shy and retiring man, always quietly spoken without a vestige of professional ambition, and it was Rosina who steered his career in America where they gave many recitals as a two-piano team. Lhévinne had one of the most extraordinary techniques of any pianist who recorded. His discs of Chopin’s études are continually astonishing for their ease and effortless fluency combined with tremendous power and force when required. He plays with an unusual clarity and lack of sentiment.
In 1928 a perceptive critic wrote of Lhévinne: ‘Like every great pianist he has a style that is strongly personal and yet interferes in no way with the faithful presentation of the composer’s music. The chief detachable feature of his style is his economy in the use of the sustaining pedal. His finger work is a hardly credible miracle, combining, as it does, reticence, lightness, enormous power, and swiftness of repetition. His interpretations are poetical, but are based less on sensibility than on intellect.’
Lhévinne made his first records for Pathé in America around 1920. Four sides were released, a stunning Tausig arrangement of Schumann’s Der Kontrabandiste, Beethoven’s écossaises arranged by Busoni (whom the Lhévinnes had known in Berlin), a marvellous performance of the Prélude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5 by his colleague Rachmaninov, and a rarely-heard piece by Tchaikovsky, Trepak from Eighteen Pieces for piano Op. 72. Lhévinne, who gives a brilliant performance of the work, had met Tchaikovsky during his time in Moscow and had played the B flat minor Concerto to the composer, who had told him that in the third movement he should think of ‘…a man in a beer hall who has drunk all the beer and begins to hiccup involuntarily’. In the autumn of 1893 he met Tchaikovsky on the street. ‘Tchaikovsky asked me to come with him to his hotel, explaining that he wished to show me a work he had recently completed. When we reached his rooms he brought out the manuscript of his Eighteen Pieces for piano Op. 72. He asked me if I would learn three of them while he was away on a trip to Petrograd and play them for him when he returned. I promised to do so, and took copies with me. But alas, Tchaikovsky never returned from that visit to Petrograd.’ Although each of the eighteen pieces comprising Op. 72 is dedicated to a separate individual (in the case of the one Lhévinne recorded, to Vassily Sapellnikov), apparently the title page survives bearing the inscription ‘To Josef Lhévinne, a talent’, and is signed P. Tchaikovsky, 22 September 1893, Moscow.
It is a pity that Lhévinne was not recorded in his major repertoire: works such as Brahms’s Variations on a theme of Paganini Op. 35, and Schumann’s Carnaval Op. 9 and Études Symphoniques Op.13. His two favourite concertos were the F minor of Chopin Op. 21 and Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Op. 23. However, we must be grateful for what RCA Victor did record in the mid 1930s when Lhévinne was aged around sixty. His first recording for Victor was made in 1928, the almost infamous disc of Johann Strauss’s waltz An der schönen blauen Donau. This arrangement by nineteenth-century pianist Adolf Schulz-Evler became Lhévinne’s most popular encore. The recording has never been surpassed in charm, panache and rhythmic aplomb, and probably never will be. Just this one recording was made in 1928, but fortunately RCA invited him back in 1935 and 1936 to record some of his other famous encore performances. The Chopin études and préludes he recorded are breathtaking in their virtuosity, as is the Schumann Toccata Op. 7, whilst the Liszt transcription of Schumann’s song Frühlingsnacht shows Lhévinne’s exceptionally beautiful singing line. In 1937 Lhévinne and his wife recorded the Sonata in D major K. 448 for two pianos by Mozart, but they never approved its release at the time. It is a sobering thought to realise that Lhévinne’s complete commercial recordings fit easily on to one compact disc but previous releases on the Novello and Philips labels were issued with incorrect equalization. New transfers were made for the Lhévinne issue in Naxos’s Great Pianists Series.
A few other recordings survive from radio broadcasts. APR have issued four works of Chopin from 1935 broadcasts, but the titles all appear amongst the Victor recordings. As yet unissued on compact disc are two movements from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 that were broadcast in 1933. Between February and May 1933 Lhévinne gave thirteen weekly broadcasts on the NBC network.
One of the greatest pianists of the 1920s and 1930s, Lhévinne is remembered by a handful of exemplary recordings that have enshrined his name in the annals of pianistic history.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).