MISCHA LEVITZKI (1898 - 1941)
Although Mischa Levitzki’s parents were from the Ukraine, they had taken American citizenship and simply happened to be on a visit to their homeland when Mischa was born. Neither of his parents was particularly musical but all the children had successful careers. Mischa’s brother became Principal Professor of Economy at Washington University, and another brother gave up his career as a civil engineer to become a partner in the Daniel Meyer Concert Corporation of America. At the age of three Mischa began studies on the violin and at six began to learn to play the piano. He studied with the great Polish pianist Aleksander Michałowski in Warsaw when he was seven, and gave his concert debut a year later in Antwerp. He then travelled with his parents to New York in 1908 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 and younger sister Bertha to study with Ernő Dohnányi at the Hochschule für Musik. Although the class was only open to pianists of sixteen and over, Levitzki was nevertheless admitted after he had stunned the entrance board of examiners with his performance of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor Op. 25. He studied with Dohnányi for three years between 1911 and 1915, in 1913 achieving second place in the Mendelssohn Prize and the following year winning first place. Levitzki made his Berlin debut at the Bechstein Hall and the following year gave a two-piano recital there with Dohnányi as well as playing in Belgium. During 1915 and 1916 Levitzki played in Germany, Vienna, Budapest and Norway and then returned to New York.
Levitzki made his New York debut in 1916 at the Aeolian Hall in a recital which included Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, Mozart, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. This led to further engagements in America and from then on Levitzki led the life of a successful touring virtuoso. The American critics were impressed: ‘Levitzki has grown with somewhat confounding quickness from the position of an unusually gifted boy to that of a young master.’ A Chicago paper said of Levitzki, ‘A great figure in the pianistic world is Mischa Levitzki. He combines something of the authority and superlative pianistic mastery of Busoni with more than an echo of the romanticism of Paderewski.’ In February of 1920 Levitzki took part in a concert at Carnegie Hall where he joined fellow pianists in a display of their art compared to that of the Ampico reproducing piano. Levitzi’s stature as a pianist can be judged from the other artists on the programme, who included Benno Moiseiwitsch, Arthur Rubinstein and Leopold Godowsky.
After World War I, Levitzki was one of the first major pianists to tour Australia and New Zealand. This he did in 1921, and he made an extended tour of the Orient from August until the end of December 1925, returning to California in January 1926 for his ninth tour of the United States. Between 1916 and 1930 he made twelve trans-continental tours visiting over a hundred American cities.
It was not until 1927 that Levitzki made his London debut. He played Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Thomas Beecham and gave no less than three recitals at the Queen’s Hall, a much larger auditorium than the Wigmore Hall, a more usual venue for recital debuts. For his debut recital he played a conventional programme, opening with a Bach–Liszt transcription and including Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata Op. 57, a group of Chopin and some Debussy and Ravel. ‘Mr Levitzki chose a programme of well-known works which showed his very considerable executive powers and his individual ideas of interpretation.’ Levizki returned to London regularly, but after 1933 does not seem to have appeared there. A review of a recital given in the smaller Wigmore Hall in March 1933 tersely remarked ‘Mr Levitzki is an accomplished virtuoso, and when that has been said there is little to add about his playing.’ The main complaint was that Levitzki played each work (by Scarlatti, Beethoven and Schumann) ‘…in exactly the same manner, with complete technical efficiency but with no indication that he appreciated the differences in their style and musical content’. Detractors of Levitzki’s art have accused him of being emotionally detached and concerned only with technique (Horowitz thought he was ‘…just awful… just fingers’) and it must be said that some of his recordings display a strict underlying rhythm that is often too brusque and inflexible.
Although Levitzki does not appear to have played in London after 1933, he did continue to work in America. In November 1935 he played Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 with the Cleveland Orchestra, whilst in 1937 he performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K. 488 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 19, using his own cadenzas. Although not known for his chamber music collaborations, in the same year Levitzki performed Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat D. 929 and an all-Brahms programme with the Musical Art Quartet at New York’s Town Hall. Levitzki died suddenly from a heart attack in January 1941 at his home in Avon-by-the-Sea, New Jersey. He was forty-two.
Levitzki made his first recordings during the end of the acoustic era. For American Columbia he recorded encore pieces including two of his own compositions. Levitzki was one of the first pianists to make an electrical recording, an experimental disc made in November 1924. It remained unpublished at the time, but has since appeared in the Naxos complete Levitzki edition. His only published electrical recording for Columbia was of Liszt’s La Campanella which Levitzki begins at a moderate tempo yet works up to a brilliant finale. His remaining recordings were all made for HMV in London between 1927 and 1933. It is these electric recordings that remain as a testament to his art and include major works such as Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Landon Ronald, and Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in G minor Op. 22. He also recorded three of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, and in these and Liszt’s Concerto No. 1 all of Levitzki’s best attributes can be heard: his sparkling finger-work, taut rhythms, and complete control. For more romantic works such as Un sospiro, and the middle section of Rachmaninov’s Prélude in G minor Op. 23 No. 5, Levitzki holds back his emotions too much and will not release his strong rhythmic control. Some of the later recordings display an uninterested earthbound detachment, most noticeably Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat Op. 53 and Mendelssohn’s Rondo capriccioso Op. 14, both recorded in 1933. However, new transfers of Levitzki’s recording of Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in G minor Op. 22 reveal a delicacy of tone and a wide-ranging tonal palette. HMV issued a recording of his famous Waltz in A major Op. 2, but unfortunately one of his best compositions, The Enchanted Nymph, although recorded in 1927 was obviously not successful and was destroyed. In 1938, Levitzki made his last commercial recordings. In May he recorded two sides for RCA Victor, one of which was his own delightful Arabesque Valsante Op. 6. In addition to this are some broadcast performances that have survived.
As Abram Chasins said of him, ‘He was a vibrant master workman; everything was pure radiance; every note shone like a sunbeam.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10)