About this Recording
8.110769 - LEVITSKI, Mischa: Complete Recordings, Vol. 2 (1927-1933)

Great Pianists: Mischa Levitzki: Complete Recordings Vol

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 compact disc.


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



Ward Marston


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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