OSCAR LEVANT (1906 - 1972)
Oscar Levant, the youngest of four sons, was fourteen when his father died; at fifteen he left school and tried to make a living as a pianist. He went to New York where he studied piano with Sigismond Stojowski and in the late 1920s went to Hollywood where he wrote music for RKO musicals. By 1930 Levant was back in New York writing music for Broadway shows. Two years later he was in London with his musical Out of the Bottle, from which comes his most famous popular song Blame it on my Youth which he wrote with lyricist E. Heyman; it has become a classic standard. In fact, although trained as a classical musician, Levant earned much of his living writing and performing for the Broadway stage, and appearing on radio, and later television.
His career as a pianist reached its heights during the 1940s. Levant moved to the West Coast of America writing music for films and appearing in several as well, most notably An American in Paris (1951) and The Band Wagon (1953). In fact, Levant had become so well known on the radio as a raconteur and wit that he often appeared as himself in films, as he did in An American in Paris where he played Gershwin’s Piano Concerto. Levant had met George Gershwin in 1925, becoming his close friend and associate. After Gershwin’s death in 1937, Levant carried the torch for the composer and was seen as his heir, revering him and playing his Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto. Wherever he played, audiences expected the Rhapsody in Blue and Levant became associated with it in the public’s mind to the virtual exclusion of most other music.
While in Hollywood Levant had studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg, and he composed a piano concerto, which he played with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1942, a sonatina for piano, a nocturne for orchestra, a sinfonietta, two overtures, a dirge and two string quartets. His unparalleled wit led to the titles of his fascinating autobiographies: A Smattering of Ignorance (1940), The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965) and The Unimportance of Being Oscar (1968). Levant was plagued with ill health throughout his life, suffering a great deal from neuroses. In the 1950s he underwent electric shock treatment for manic-depressiveness and during the rest of his life he rarely gave piano performances in public, although he continued to appear on television and radio.
Although Levant was a household name in America for decades due to his wisecracks and caustic wit, he was, in fact, an extremely sensitive and adroit musician, and his many commercial recordings attest to this. He recorded for Columbia from 1941 to 1958 and it is the earlier recordings which show Levant at his best. Short pieces that were issued on 78rpm discs (and later as LP albums) show Levant’s liking for French music and what were then termed ‘modern’ composers. He recorded music by Debussy, Poulenc, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Khachaturian, as well as Jelobinsky and Falla. His recording of Rachmaninov’s Prélude in E flat Op. 23 No. 6 is sensitive and poetic, and is one of his finest; while many of the Debussy works are played with the utmost sensitivity for phrasing, tone colour and mood. He also recorded a fair amount of Chopin and a generous selection of these early recordings has been reissued on compact disc by Pearl.
In 1947 Levant recorded two warhorse concertos: the B flat minor Op. 23 by Tchaikovsky and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 (with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra). They are given big, even overblown virtuoso performances. Another concerto Levant recorded was the Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor Op. 70 by Anton Rubinstein with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Dimitri Mitropoulos in 1952. Without doubt, his best-selling recording was of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. He had made his very first recording for Vocalion in 1925 with Ben Bernie’s dance orchestra, playing piano on Yes Sir, that’s my baby and Collegiate, and his first recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1928 with Frank Black and his orchestra. In 1945 he recorded this again, now with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy. In January 1946 it became the number one classical best seller on the Billboard Chart in America, and remained one of Columbia’s best selling albums for the next ten years. It was difficult for Levant to break away from his association with Gershwin and his music, however much he revered him, but other concertante works he recorded included the Piano Concerto by Khatchaturian with Mitropoulos and the Concertino by Honegger with Fritz Reiner. A few LPs of popular favourites include one from 1958 entitled Some Pleasant Moments in the 20th Century; on this, Levant gives subtle performances of works by Ravel, Debussy, Mompou, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Cyril Scott. From 1955 comes an LP of Liszt where Levant includes four of the Hungarian Rhapsodies delivered in a style which is somewhat indulgent: by this time his health was causing many problems.
In 1994 DRG issued a compact disc of Levant playing works by Gershwin and himself mainly taken from radio broadcasts. Included are Levant playing his own Piano Sonatina and his Piano Concerto with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Alfred Wallenstein.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).