For some reason now lost in the mists of time, Rosina Lhévinne’s mother Maria was not able to marry the man with whom she was in love. Instead, she married a travelling Dutchman named Jacques Bessie by whom she had two daughters: Sophie, born around 1873; and Rosina, born seven years afterwards in Kiev but taken to Moscow about a year later. In 1884 Maria saved her daughter’s life by demanding that a tracheotomy be performed to prevent the child from dying of diphtheria. This traumatic episode and the fact that Maria was not very interested in her husband made the bond between herself and Rosina very strong. Both parents were amateur pianists and when the elder daughter Sophie began lessons at home from Antonin Galli, a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, young Rosina was always present. She began lessons herself a few years later, but her childhood was very protected by her mother.
Rosina began studies at the Moscow Conservatory with Remesov when she was nine years old. She first met Josef Lhévinne at this time when he was fourteen years old. After three years with Remesov, Rosina entered the class of Vassily Safonov, the class from which Josef Lhévinne had graduated with a gold medal. A week after she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, also with the gold medal, Rosina married Josef Lhévinne. Rosina decided however to give up her own career as a pianist and concentrate on that of her husband. In the same year, the composer César Cui asked them to perform Anton Arensky’s Second Suite for Two Pianos in Moscow and many people, including Arensky, encouraged Rosina to pursue a career as a solo pianist, but she had already made her decision, and never regretted it.
After living in Tiflis for two years, the Lhévinnes moved back to Moscow and it was here that Rosina played solo in public for the first time since her marriage. In December 1902 she played the difficult Piano Concerto in F minor Op. 16 by Adolf Henselt with the Moscow Conservatory Orchestra conducted by Arthur Nikisch.
Rosina continued to accompany her husband on his tours, and in 1906 embarked with him, their son and her father for New York. They spent over a year in America and until the outbreak of World War I returned many times. They also visited Berlin, where Rosina appeared as soloist in 1912, and were living there when war broke out. As Russian Jews they were interned during hostilities, an experience which prompted them to emigrate to America once peace returned.
In 1922 both Josef and Rosina Lhévinne joined the faculty of the Juilliard Music School in New York. Josef, of course, continued his performing career, and they also continued to give two-piano recitals together. After the death of Josef in 1944, Rosina concentrated solely on teaching until her death at the age of ninety-six. She also gave master-classes in Los Angeles, Aspen, Colorado and the University of California at Berkeley. Her students included Van Cliburn, Mischa Dichter, John Browning and Garrick Ohlsson.
As most of her life was spent in teaching, it is not surprising that there are few recordings of Rosina Lhévinne at the piano. In 1935 she joined her husband in the RCA studio to record Debussy’s Fêtes arranged for two pianos by Ravel, and two years later recorded Mozart’s Sonata in D major for Two Pianos K. 448 with Josef, but the Lhévinnes never permitted the release of the recording. It was, however, issued later on LP. In 1948 she took part in a recording for Columbia of Mozart’s Concerto for Three Pianos in F major K. 242 with Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin. Her most important recordings are those made in the early 1960s.
In 1960, at the age of eighty, Lhévinne recorded Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major K. 467 for Columbia. This is a superlative recording, and one of the very best of this particular concerto. Lhévinne has wonderfully incisive articulation, yet gives what is by no means a dry or academic performance. It is beautifully balanced between the ‘Romantic’ and ‘authentic’ approach. Two years later she recorded Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11. She had performed it at Hunter College Auditorium in New York as part of her eightieth birthday celebrations and Vanguard recorded it in November 1961 when Lhévinne was approaching eighty-two years of age. It is an excellent performance by any standards, romantic and lyrical, but as always, Lhévinne manages the proportions of the structure and style perfectly. Both the concertos have appeared on compact disc. Lhévinne continued to amaze with her public concerts and on 20 January 1963, two months short of her eighty-third birthday, she made her debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Leonard Bernstein playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist