About this Recording
8.110774 - LEVITZKI, Mischa: Complete Recordings, Vol. 3 (1927-1938)

Great Pianists: Mischa Levitzki: Complete Recordings Vol. 3

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, however, was only open 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. The recital he played reflected the fashion of the time and his taste for a balanced programme, opening with Bach arranged by Liszt, some Mozart, a Beethoven sonata (the Waldstein), Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. This led to further engagements in America and from then on Levitzki led the life of a successful touring virtuoso. He played regularly at Carnegie Hall during the 1920s giving an all-Beethoven programme in November 1920 and an all-Chopin recital in January 1924. 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. He also played in Moscow in 1927.

During the 1920s Levitzki 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, author 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.

This third and final compact disc of Levitzki’s recordings consists predominantly of his discs of Chopin recorded for HMV between 1928 and 1933. At his fifth session for HMV he recorded the Waltz in G flat, Op. 70, No. 1, the Waltz in A flat, Op. 64, No. 3 and the Nocturne in F sharp, Op. 15, No. 2. For some unknown reason the Waltzes were only issued in Austria, Spain and Australia, the Nocturne in Spain and Britain. Levitzki was a popular touring artist at this time and no doubt his records were in demand wherever he played, but this does not explain why some were not issued in Britain, where he was so popular. He also recorded the Waltz, Op. 34, No. 1, and an Etude in A flat, but neither of these was issued. Two days later he was back in the studio having two more attempts at the Op. 34 Waltz, but was again unsuccessful. The following day produced takes of the Ballade No. 3 in A flat, Op. 47, that could be published. Levitzki had first recorded it a year before, then had a second attempt in December 1927, but it was the session of 22nd November 1928 that produced the satisfactory sides. Again this recording was not issued in Britain, but only in Spain, Austria, Germany and Australia.

It was nearly a year before Levitzki was recording again for HMV. The session of 31st October 1929 produced the recordings of the Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 39, and three destroyed attempts at the three Preludes. However, the session of 21st November 1929 was more productive in that the three Preludes, the Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1, and Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5, were approved for publication. The Nocturne was never published at the time.

Levitzki did not record again until March 1933. From the last of three sessions comes the Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53. He had previously recorded it for HMV in December 1927, and two takes of each side were held for publication. Unfortunately these have not survived, as it would be interesting to compare them with the later recording of 1933. During the late 1920s Levitzki 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. By the early 1930s Levitzki’s playing had become less flexible and this is noticeable in his recording of this Polonaise, the last disc he made for HMV.

Levitzki was to enter the recording studio once more in his short life. In May 1938 he recorded two of his compositions for Victor in their New York Studio 3. The Waltz in A major, Op. 2, is given a rather routine performance with a few finger slips (Levitzki must have played it hundreds of times), but the Arabesque valsante is far more persuasive with its charming minor-key melancholy. Levitzki was dead less than three years later at the age of 42.

The last decade of Levitzki’s life was mainly spent performing in America. There are some surviving radio broadcasts of his performances, and generally he played repertoire for which he was known, often Chopin, Liszt and Levitzki, but in 1935 he played the Scherzo from the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, by Saint- Saëns. During the same month he performed this concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra, and in the late 1930s continued to collaborate with artists of the stature of John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1937 Levitzki played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 19, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K. 488, with Leon Barzin, and in December of the same year he played Schubert’s Piano Trio in E flat with the Musical Art Quartet at New York’s Town Hall, and the following week participated in an evening of Brahms’s chamber music.

Although his career abroad may have slowed during the mid-1930s he was still popular in America, and when he died Abram Chasins wrote, ‘He was a vibrant master workman; everything was pure radiance; every note shone like a sunbeam’.

© Jonathan Summers

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