Gleaming Poise

I learned a lot about the great pianists of the past by reading Harold C Schonberg’s classic book The Great Pianists. While he went into great detail about many pianists, he didn’t talk lots about others, yet I wanted to know about them all. One of the pianists from the early part of the 20th century that he mentioned was Mischa Levitzki, who he said died young.

One day I struck gold at one of my favourite second-hand stores in Montreal – someone had sold an amazing collection of top-notch historical piano LPs to the shop, and among the many many items that I purchased was a disc produced by the International Piano Archives of Mischa Levitzki: His Rarest Recordings (1923-1929). Two tracks stood out, both by Chopin: the Nocturne in C Minor Op.48 No.1 and the Third Ballade, Op.47. What struck me about the Ballade was the incredible sense of poise and balance – although Levitzki was trained in the Romantic tradition, his use of rubato was rather chaste, and the architectural structure of the music was beautifully served by his shifts in tempo and his alternating balance of voices in the left and right hands.

Levitzki was an A-List Steinway artist in the 1920s – meaning that he received a subsidy every time he played a concert on a Steinway – and, quite amazingly, Rachmaninoff and Horowitz were on the B-list. And yet a decade after he died, when the LP era came into being and labels were making retrospective LPs of artists who had recorded on 78s, RCA never once made an LP devoted to Levitzki, like they did for Lhevinne and Rachmaninoff. He was simply forgotten.

Fortunately for collectors, Gregor Benko of the International Piano Archives changed that in the 1970s with that glorious LP, and now you can buy Levitzki’s complete recordings – plus some broadcast performances – on a total of 3 CDs for less than $30, in glorious sound. What an age we live in…