Oscar Levant on the cover of an EP (45 RPM “extended play”) release of some of his Chopin selections (from Amazon.com)
The title of the fourth CD in the eight-disc anthology A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant, collecting all of his recordings for Columbia Records, is Oscar Levant Plays Chopin and Debussy. This is actually a compilation of two albums, originally released as collections of 78 RPM records in 1946, the first on October 7 and the second on October 27. The first consisted of short works by Fréderic Chopin, while the second took the same approach to the music of Claude Debussy.
This was a long time before recitalists would dare to present a “comprehensive” account of either of these composers on a concert program or a recording. Audiences were not interested in thorough catalogs of Chopin’s études, nocturnes, or even his waltzes. Only RCA would take such a daring approach and then only due to the strong following of Arthur Rubinstein. (Rubinstein first recorded the nineteen nocturnes between May of 1936 and April of 1937.) Where Debussy was concerned, most listeners probably knew him for “Clair de Lune” (which Levant had already recorded on his Popular Moderns album) and little else. On the other hand, when listeners like a pianist, they tended to follow that pianist to his/her “favorites,” which was why RCA could release a My Favorite Chopin album by Van Cliburn after he became one of that label’s “hot properties.”
Presumably, Levant chose to select his favorites for these two Columbia albums. Listening to the Chopin tracks, one can appreciate how Levant could convey a sense that he was bringing his own personal touch to each of the pieces. That touch was more than just loving. It was also inquiring, seeking out fascinating corners in each of the selections that more mediocre performers were likely to overlook. Levant’s approach to the ostinato foundation of the Opus 57 berceuse makes it clear that mere repetition is not part of his game plan. Similarly, his accounts of the études consistently involve more than technical display, often revealing approaches to phrasing that throw these “exercises” into a fresh and personable light.
Where Debussy is concerned, on the other hand, Levant seems to recognize that the composer already as an impressive complex of thoughts to express. Almost all of the Debussy selections bear titles based on images, and it is clear that Levant put considerable thought into how to realize the marks on staff paper in a matter that would be faithful to those images. He succeeds so consistently in this endeavor that one almost expects to encounter some sense of imagery in his account of both of the pieces that Debussy called “Arabesques,” even if the title itself was more abstract than that of “Minstrels.”
As products of recording sessions that are now about 75 years old, there is a freshness to the selections on this CD that may well prompt the listener who thought (s)he had “heard it all” to sit up and take notice.