About this Recording
8.110681 - LHEVINNE, Jozef: Complete Recordings (1920-1937)

Josef Lhevinne was born in Orel, near Moscow in December 1874. The eleventh child of a father who was a musician, young Josef was a prodigy, playing the piano at the age of three and from the age of six having lessons with a local teacher, a Swede named Krysander. At eleven he played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata 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 his piano teacher and Josef received daily lessons at which his whole approach to piano playing was drastically altered.

When he was fourteen, Lhevinne was told that the great pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein was to visit the Conservatory and that he should play for him. He prepared Beethoven’s Eroica Variations, a Liszt Rhapsody, three Chopin Etudes, a Bach Fugue and an Etude by Lyadov. After Rubinstein had heard other students for more than two hours Safonov asked him what he would like to hear from Lhevinne. "Let him play everything!" was the reply, and before young Josef commenced the C minor Etude of Chopin Rubinstein shook his big head and shouted "Make it stormy!"

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 Lhevinne accompanied a cellist in Rubinstein’s Cello Sonata, Op.11, No.2. Rubinstein then asked Safonov for Lhevinne to play in the annual benefit concert for Widows and Orphans of Musicians. It was an all-Beethoven concert and the fifteen-year-old Lhevinne played the Emperor Concerto with Rubinstein conducting.

"I remember walking onto the platform, dressed in my blue Russian blouse with belt and knickers, and feeling as full of confidence as if the playing of the solo part in a Beethoven concerto was a thing I did every day of my life. I played well that day. Rubinstein was genuinely and sincerely enthusiastic. Again he embraced me. It was the practice not to permit encores at these concerts. But the applause was so insistent that I was told to go on again. I played the stormy Chopin Etude. Again I had to play. Safonov whispered to me to play a Rubinstein Etude. As soon as Rubinstein realised what I was playing he covered his ears with his hands and ran out of the hall! Long afterwards Rubinstein confided to me that he could not bear to hear anyone play his own compositions but himself!"

Nikolay Kashkin, Moscow’s most influential critic at the time, wrote in the Russkie Vedomosti ‘The young pianist J.Lhevinne’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.’

Lhevinne graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 and his name can still be seen engraved on the table of winners. He was in good company; his colleagues and fellow winners that year were Maximov, Rachmaninov and Scriabin. In August 1895 he went to Berlin, where he won the coveted Anton Rubinstein prize of 5000 francs. Of 33 candidates Lhevinne was finally selected as the winner with his performance of Rubinstein’s Fifth Concerto in E flat, the Berlin New Philharmonic Orchestra being conducted by Karl Klindworth.

In 1898 he married Rosina Bessie, herself a pianist, who survived her husband by 32 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. After teaching at Tiflis from 1900-1902 Lhevinne became professor at the Moscow Conservatory from 1902-1906. On 27th January 1906 he made his Carnegie Hall début. ‘…..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 Lhevinne. 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 Lhevinne played more than one hundred concerts.

Until the end of the First War, the Lhevinnes were based in Berlin, where Josef had a teaching and performing career. Because of internment during the war, in 1919 they moved to New York and it was at this time that Josef made his first records for Pathé: a stunning Tausig arrangement, Beethoven arranged by Busoni, whom the Lhevinnes had known in Berlin, a marvellous G minor Prelude by his colleague Rachmaninov, and a rarely heard piece by Tchaikovsky. Lhevinne 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 (the one Lhevinne recorded to Vassily Sapelnikov), apparently the title-page survives bearing the inscription ‘To Josef Lhevinne, a talent’, and is signed P.Tchaikovsky 22nd September 1893, Moscow.

It was in 1922 that both Josef and Rosina joined the staff of the Juilliard School of Music, Rosina’s teaching career spanning some five decades with her most famous pupil being Van Cliburn. Josef 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.

It is a pity that Lhevinne was not recorded in his major repertoire — works such as the Brahms Paganini Variations and Schumann’s Carnaval. His two favourite concertos were the Concerto in F minor of Chopin and Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Concerto. However, we must be grateful for what RCA Victor did record: the almost infamous recording of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz. This arrangement by the nineteenth-century pianist Adolf Schulz-Evler became Lhevinne’s most popular encore. The recording here has never been surpassed in charm, panache and rhythmic aplomb and probably never will be. Lhevinne’s perfectionism can be noted here in that he recorded the first side nine times and the second side twelve times before he was satisfied with it. 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 Etudes are breathtaking in their virtuosity as is the Schumann Toccata, whilst the Liszt transcription of Schumann’s song Frühlingsnacht shows Lhevinne’s beautiful singing line. In 1937 Lhevinne and his wife recorded the Sonata in D major for two pianos by Mozart, but they never approved its release. Lhevinne died a few years later on 2nd December 1944 in New York.

Jonathan Summers

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