About this Recording
9.70153 - LEVY, E.: Sonata Strofica / Sonata for Ten (Polish National Radio Symphony, Oberg)

Ernst Lévy (1895–1981)
Sonata Strofica • Sonata for Ten


Ernst Lévy, born in Switzerland in 1895 and very much a musical wunderkind, was appointed to the piano faculty of the Basel Conservatory of Music by the time he was 21. At the age of 25 he moved to Paris and quickly established himself. In 1928 he founded the Chœur Philharmonique, with which he conducted performances of major choral works, and recorded some of them for Polydor records. While living in Paris he married Else Hammerschlag, a Viennese woman whose father had been Mahler’s personal physician, and fathered two sons, Frank and Matthys.

As Europe was about to convulse into chaos, Lévy’s family sailed to the United States in 1939, where he joined them in 1941. City University of New York professor Robert H. Lilienfeld, who has chronicled the achievements of both Ernst and Frank Lévy, starkly noted: “…he was one of the refugees who arrived in America in flight from the crisis of European civilization which culminated in World War II”. One suspects that, were it not for Lévy’s intuition regarding the impending Holocaust, audiences would likely have never benefited from either his or his son’s compositional talents.

Once in the United States, Lévy began a distinguished teaching career. Among his faculty appointments were tenures at such prestigious schools as MIT, New England Conservatory and the University of Chicago. During this time he composed prolifically. His works include fifteen symphonies, music for solo piano, concertos, choral works and chamber music for various combinations of instruments.

Despite his teaching schedule and the many hours spent composing, he continued to perform as a piano recitalist and recorded many works for Kapp, Unicorn and Columbia records, among others. The 1954 Columbia performances were never released, but now have been made available on a Marston CD: Ernst Lévy – Forgotten Genius Plays Beethoven, Liszt and Lévy. Donald Manildi, in his notes accompanying that CD, states: “Lévy’s performances are not for the faint of heart”. Manildi is warm in his praise, but indicates that there are critics who strongly disagree. Lilienfeld, siding with Manildi, hails Lévy as “…one of the truly great pianists of his generation”.

Ernst Lévy possessed a powerful intellect that led him to probe many other disciplines including mathematics, architecture, physics, acoustics and philosophy. All of these influences made their way into the musical gestalt of this remarkable artist who died in Switzerland in 1981.

Ernst Lévy’s Sonata Strofica [1970] and Sonata for Ten [1980] are late works from the composer’s last years. He died on Easter Sunday 1981. Both are experiments in a new style: “symphonic concepts” for a small ensemble of solo instruments. Dr Siegmund Levarie, the composer’s close friend, conducted the first American performance of the Sonata Strofica at Brooklyn College on 23 April 1971. It is a work in five movements.

An American Maecenas, a long-time admirer of Lévy’s person and work who lived in Florida, commissioned the Sonata for Ten. His only request was that the work be dedicated to him. The Sonata became a three-movement work. It turned out to be Lévy’s last composition.

Eager to hear the music, the Maecenas arranged to have the piece recorded. Dr Levarie was asked to conduct a group of the players, gathered by a contractor from among the best free-lance instrumentalists in New York. There were two long rehearsals before a professional recording session took place.

By that time Ernst Lévy was quite ill and aware of his approaching death. The finished compact disc was rushed to his home in Morges, Switzerland, where he had spent the last fifteen years of his retirement. He sent the players a telegram, thanking them for the “the last musical pleasure of my life”. Unexpectedly, the American Maecenas also died shortly afterward.

For the recording of the Sonata Strofica the performers included Janusz Skramlik, violin, Tadeusz Wykurz, viola, Zdzisław Łapinsky, cello, Jan Kotula, bass, Maria Grochowska, flute, Tomasz Miczka, oboe, Zbigniew Kaleta, clarinet, Wieslaw Grochowski, French horn and Joanna Galon-Frant, piano.

The performers in this recording of the Sonata for Ten were Roland Orlik, first violin, Antoni Nowina-Konopka, second violin, Tadeusz Wykurz, viola, Zdzisław Łapinsky, cello, Jan Kotula, bass, Tomasz Miczka, oboe, Zbigniew Kaleta, clarinet, Krzysztof Fiedukiewicz, bassoon, Wieslaw Grochowski, French horn and Wojciech Morcinczyk, percussion.

All performers are members of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra.

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