Monday, September 17, 2018

Columbia’s Take on Modernism Via Levant

Original 78 RPM packaging of much of the content on the CD discussed in this article (from

In the early days of the recording industry, a battle (of sorts) unfolded between Columbia Records and RCA. As was observed in this weekend’s initial piece on the eight-CD anthology A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant, Columbia became the label for the New York Philharmonic (and its earlier incarnations) and the Philadelphia Orchestra, while RCA provided a “recording home” for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. RCA also had leading individual artists, such as the conductor Arturo Toscanini and his NBC Symphony Orchestra, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, and tenor Enrico Caruso. Columbia had violinist Isaac Stern and composer Igor Stravinsky. Over the somewhat irregular course of his career, pianist Vladimir Horowitz managed to play “both sides of the street.”

This was a time when both labels recognized that there was a limited audience for “highbrow” content; but each wanted to be seen as setting standards for “good taste,” whether it involved past or present. As one of the best interpreters of the music of George Gershwin, Levant was a high card in Columbia’s hand. As a result, there was an interest in presenting Levant as a standard-bearer for a wider scope of modernism; and that interest was fostered through a series of recording sessions that took place between 1941 and 1945. Initially issued as a collection of “singles,” these recordings were released in 1948 on an early ten-inch LP entitled Oscar Levant Plays Popular Moderns.

That title is also given to the second CD in the eight-CD anthology of Levant’s complete Columbia recordings. Within a decade of that release, Amiri Baraka, then writing about jazz as LeRoi Jones, would be railing against “middle-brow” tastes with labels like Columbia in his sights. My guess is that the very phrase “popular moderns” would have driven Baraka apoplectic; but, in all fairness to Levant, the tracks on this CD do not deserve to be dismissed as mere “pops” offerings.

First of all, picking up where the first CD left off, Levant rounds out his Gershwin repertoire with a rock-solid account of that composer’s three solo piano preludes. Furthermore, rather than write off Claude Debussy with nothing more than “Clair de lune” (which clearly had to be included) and “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” Levant serves up convincing accounts of two of the solo piano preludes and the third piece in the Estampes collection, “Jardins sous la pluie.” There is also a somewhat prankish coupling of the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s sonatina with the first movement of Levant’s own sonatina. Nevertheless, it is a little disconcerting that Columbia would not allow Levant to record more than single movements and excerpts.

The CD then concludes with five previously unreleased tracks. These are five of the six movements from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 825 partita in B-flat major. Bach, of course, was not a “modern,” popular or otherwise; but Levant’s performance used an arrangement prepared earlier in the twentieth century by English pianist Harold Samuel. Samuel’s objective seems to have been to make Bach sound more pianistic, and his success in doing so will probably drive purists up the wall. On the other hand, if Bach wrote this collection for pedagogical purposes, than adapting the movements for piano pedagogy is far from the worst idea in the world; and one would not accuse the “piano sound” that Levant mines from the Bach source of being in excessively bad taste.

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