Back cover of Sony Classical’s Oscar Levant collection (from Amazon.com)
All of the tracks on the final disc in Sony Classical’s eight-CD anthology of all Columbia Records recordings of pianist Oscar Levant, A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant, were taken from recordings made on a single day, June 5, 1958. Levant was only 51 at the time. A lifelong heavy smoker, Levant would succumb to a heart attack at the age of 65 on August 14, 1972. This session is far from Levant’s “last word” at the keyboard; but, not long after this session, he chose to move on to other things.
The first of those things was his own television talk show, called simply The Oscar Levant Show. Levant used this as a platform for playing the piano, but talk was his priority. It emerged through his own monologues and interviews, often with guests one would not associated with a “show-business personality.” A representative example was Linus Pauling.
Mind you, Levant was far from the only talk show host willing to respect the intelligence of his audience. Jack Paar consistently played in the same league; and, as I already observed, one of his guests was Levant. Later on there would be Steve Allen, whose Meeting of Minds reconceived the talk-show format to present “guests” from the past (embodied, of course, by actors working with scripts that Allen himself had a hand in developing). (I remember being totally hooked when Public Broadcasting Service presented this series. Unless I am mistaken, Attila the Hun and Emily Dickinson were guests on the same program; but the real tour de force came when William Shakespeare was interrupted by a “surprise appearance” of the “Dark Lady” of the sonnets, played by Allen’s wife, Jayne Meadows, with impeccable command of iambic pentameter!)
However, as Paar liked to say, I digress. One of the things I particularly liked about this last session was that Levant was able to complete an undertaking that went all the way back to January 10, 1942, when Columbia allowed him to record only the second movement of Maurice Ravel’s sonatina for their Popular Moderns album. It took over fifteen years for Levant to give an account of the entire sonatina, but it was worth the wait. The session also allowed him to revisit many of the selections that ended up on his recordings of Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy and even added some of the Chopin mazurkas to the mix (not always with much sensitivity to the dance form but enough sensitivity to be true to Chopin).
The real treat, however, came at the end of this CD with Levant’s venture into Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 22 collection Visions fugitives. He plays only six of the twenty pieces in this set, all of which, as Prokofiev’s title suggests, are impeccable models of brevity. (The duration of the six pieces he plays is only slightly longer than six minutes.) Sadly, this is Prokofiev’s only appearance in the entire collection. I would like to believe that Levant wanted audiences to know how much more there was to Prokofiev other than “Peter and the Wolf” and that his ambitions were thwarted, at least in part, by Columbia’s “middle-brow” dispositions. Still, we have to remember that these were days when few were willing to believe that such recordings could be scholarly resources; so we just have to derive what pleasures we can from what record producers allowed us to get.