Sunday, September 23, 2018

Oscar Levant in the LP (long-playing) Age

The Fifties was the decade in which Columbia Records phased out all media for recordings of pianist Oscar Levant other than the long-playing (LP) vinyl disc. The seventh CD in the eight-disc anthology A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant brings together the first two vinyl-only albums that Columbia released. These were Oscar Levant Plays Liszt (released on May 21, 1956) and Some Pleasant Moments in the 20th Century (released on November 3, 1958), both of which happened to have exactly the same portrait photograph of Levant taken by Dan Weiner, albeit in different sizes.

The original cover of Oscar Levant’s second vinyl-only release (from Amazon.com)

By the time of that first release, LeRoi Jones (who had not yet changed his name to Amiri Baraka) had declared his fierce opposition to “middle-brow” tastes; and an album entitled Some Pleasant Moments in the 20th Century must have driven him up the wall. I have no idea whether Levant was a subscriber to Down Beat, but I would be surprised if he did not read that journal regularly. My guess is that he sympathized with Jones and probably groaned long and hard (a familiar personality trait) when he learned what the title of that November album would be.

More likely, Levant intended that album to provide an introduction to the general public of a composer who was not receiving very much attention, the Catalan Federico Mompou. Departing from the predominance of “short takes” encountered on most of his earlier releases for Columbia, this album allowed him to give a performance of the suite Scènes d’enfants (scenes of children) in its entirety. Admittedly, Mompou was most comfortable as a miniaturist; and each movement of this suite is a model of highly-expressive brevity. Nevertheless, the fact that Levant wished to approach the suite as a whole made for a welcome episode in surveying the contents of this eight-CD collection.

One consequence, however, is that, on that second album Mompou gets more attention than the other composer included, Maurice Ravel. As a result, only two of the movements from his suite Le tombeau de Couperin are included; and the other selection is the relatively brief “Pavane pour une infante défunte.” That makes the entire album a rather modest offering; but, from my own personal point of view, giving Mompou the spotlight overrides the other speed-bumps that must have been inevitable in most of Levant’s recording projects.

Where the Liszt album is concerned, he certainly catches the spirit of the four Hungarian rhapsodies included on the album. (Both Levant and Columbia also score points for that fact that the notorious second of those rhapsodies was not included. Here, again, discovery of the unfamiliar seems to have been one of Levant’s priorities.) The other selections are the “Sonetto 104 del Petrarca,” from the second “year” of the Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage) collection, and the first, in F-sharp major, “Valse oubliée.”

Note that neither of these “long playing” albums is particularly long; but they both hold up very well to sustained listening.