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…

Rachmaninoff’s Choice

One of the pianists whom I wanted to hear most after reading Harold C Schonberg’s tome ‘The Great Pianists’ was Josef Hofmann. Schonberg clearly idolized him and wrote about him in such detail that I couldn’t quite imagine what he sounded like. Sure enough, once I did hear his playing, I realized that this was indeed something very different from the norm – there was no one like this at all on the concert stage at the time I was introduced to him (in the mid-80s), While Horowitz was known as a Romantic master, he too seemed almost ordinary…while Horowitz created amazing sounds and lightning bolts, Hofmann seemed to be an alchemist who produced liquid gold.

The legendary concert that Schonberg wrote about – Hofmann’s Golden Jubilee performance of November 28, 1937 at the Metropolitan in New York – was one that I excitedly got my hands on, and I could not believe some of the playing. Perhaps one of the greatest parts of the concert is his performance of Rachmaninoff’s famous G Minor Prelude Op.23 No.5. The middle section finds Hofmann voicing a third voice in such a way that it seems to float and jump out of nowhere. The similarity between the writing of this work and that of the famous Third Piano Concerto brings to mind how incredible Hofmann’s performance of that work might have been – Rachmaninoff wrote the work with him in mind, and Hofmann never played it. The loss is ours. But the 3-minute dream of this performance of the G Minor Prelude can fill the imagination with how splendid that interpretation might have been…

Dinu Lipatti: The Chopin Concerto Scandal

lipatti seraphimIn 1966, EMI issued a previously unknown recording of Chopin’s Piano Concerto #1 in E Minor featuring the pianist Dinu Lipatti. No orchestra or conductor was named. On the record jacket of the British release of the recording in 1971 was the following statement:

“This recording includes a performance by Dinu Lipatti of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. It comes from a tape, which EMI acquired, made at a concert in Switzerland in May, 1948. Although there is no question that the performance is by Dinu Lipatti, extensive enquiries have failed to establish the name of the conductor and orchestra. However, this particular performance has not been published in the UK before now and is therefore a musical document of rare value.”

When EMI reissued the recording in 1981, the BBC broadcast the record, and a listener wrote in noting its similarity with a Supraphon recording dating from the early 1950s featuring the distinguished Chopin pianist Halina Czerny-Stefanska. Tests by BBC and EMI revealed that the two recordings were identical.

When the news broke, Dr. Marc Gertsch of Bern presented a tape to EMI of an authentic live Lipatti performance from a radio broadcast of a Zurich concert given February 7, 1950, featuring the Zurich-Tonhalle Orchestra conducted by Otto Ackermann. The tape formed the basis of a new LP and all previous pressings of the erroneously-attributed recording were withdrawn worldwide.

The behind-the-scenes situations leading up to the release of the Czerny-Stefanska recording are as follows.

In 1960, Walter Legge was approached by one Mr. Kaspar of Zurich, who owned a tape of the Lipatti/Ackermann performance of the Chopin Concerto in excellent sound. EMI expressed an interest in issuing the recording, but according to Legge, Kaspar vanished with the tape when copyright inquiries were made as to who the copyright owner was.

Shortly afterwards, another collector presented another tape of the Chopin Concerto to Madeleine Lipatti. EMI has said that while there were no detailed indications as to the origin of the tape, Madeleine, Legge, and Ansermet agreed that Lipatti was the pianist. EMI made inquiries into the identities of the orchestra (it was thought it might be the Concertgebouw or La Scala), but to no avail. The situation was exasperating to Walter Legge and Madeleine Lipatti. Madeleine wrote to Legge (in French) on October 17, 1963:

“I think that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the references to its origin. The person who sold this tape to the man in Basel said that it consisted of a recording made by Dinu Lipatti with the Warsaw Orchestra with a conductor named Mawricki – but Dinu never played with these people! It is obviously a vicious lie… We are certain that Dinu played this Chopin Concerto only in Zurich since magnetos were invented! We can have no doubt.”

Madeleine’s identification of a purported conductor and orchestra runs counter to EMI’s story that the origin of the tape was unclear. In Legge’s reply of October 23, he says:

“If as you say Dinu only played the Chopin Concerto in Zurich after the invention of the magneto, there must have been two performances or a rehearsal and a performance, because in the one tape I have heard there are audience noises and in the other there is absolute silence.”

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La Dadame

Marcelle Meyer met Debussy at the premiere performance of Erik Satie’s Parade, for which she was the pianist. To give you an idea of the production: the mise-en-scene was by Jean Cocteau, the sets were painted by Picasso, and the choreography was by Leonide Massine, with orchestra conducted by Ernest Ansermet – the 20-year-old Marcelle Meyer was the pianist. Debussy was present at this event, which took place just under a year before he died.

Meyer is said to have been coached by the ailing Debussy in how to play his Preludes, and certainly her playing is unique in its combination of impressionistic colours and timing. Meyer also studied with Ricardo Vines, who had premiered several of the composer’s works, and she clearly had insight into his art. While she recorded the two books of Debussy Preludes in 1957 – a recording that was unissued until 1989! – she also committed 3 of them to disc in 1947, among them an incredible “La terrasse des audiences au claire de lune” in which time seems to stand still. Her tone production and dynamic range are perfectly proportioned, and she stretches phrases in a way that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats. This recording was never issued on LP and had its first CD issue on a set of her complete commercial recordings produced by EMI France in 2008.