The title of the third 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 the Music of German, Russian and American Composers. The country that receives the most attention is Germany, with music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Richard Wagner. Russia is represented by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Aram Khachaturian. (Strictly speaking, Khachaturian is Armenian; but he was born in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. At the time of his birth, he was a citizen of the Russian Empire and became a Soviet citizen following the Revolution. He studied at the Moscow Conservatory and subsequently taught there. Like his colleagues Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, he was subjected to the vagaries of the Soviet authorities. Rachmaninoff, on the other hand, left Russia after the Revolution, eventually ending up in the United States.) Levant is one of the two American composers on the disc, the other being Aaron Copland.
As was the case with Oscar Levant Plays Popular Moderns, most of the selections on this CD are relatively short, recorded with consideration for the duration of a single side of a 78 RPM record. Among the German selections, some are short enough to allow two of them to fit on a single side. This is the case, for example, with the coupling of the penultimate of Brahms’ sixteen Opus 39 waltzes (in the key of A-flat major) with “Träumerei” (dreams), the seventh movement from Robert Schumann’s Opus 15 suite Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood).
Consequently, the longest selection on the CD is the second of Beethoven’s Opus 27 sonatas in C-sharp minor, best known by the name “Moonlight.” This would have had a “sales draw” based on the popularity of both the music and the pianist. While the sonata is associated with any number of “higher class” pianists, Levant still deserves his place among the vast population of interpreters. This is much more than a mere accounting of the notes, and he clearly had his own approach regarding how the phrases should be shaped. There is also no evident sign that his Columbia producers were obliging him to keep one eye on the clock while he was playing. Equally impressive is his account of the second movement of the Opus 13 (“Pathétique”) sonata in C minor, making one wish for some document of how he played the outer movements.
Original 78 RMP packaging of music form the film Humoresque, with clips from the film (from Amazon.com)
The “wild card” among the German selections involves Wagner. This involves Levant performing with violinist Isaac Stern in an arrangement by Franz Waxman of music from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Waxman is conducting a studio orchestra, because he prepared this music for the soundtrack of the 1946 Warner Bros. film Humoresque, a torrid account of a romance between an aspiring young violinist (John Garfield) and his older patroness (Joan Crawford). (Levant appeared in this film in the role of the violinist’s accompanist.) The plot involves the violinist preparing a transcription of the “Liebestod” for a concert performance; and we hear that music while watching Crawford drown herself in the Pacific Ocean. As might be guessed, Stern is the center of musical attention on this track, while Levant acquits himself dutifully along with all of the other (anonymous) studio musicians.
The Khachaturian selections, both excerpts from his Gayane ballet (one being the notorious “Sabre Dance”) are also performed with an orchestra, identified only as the Columbia Concert Orchestra. This is what is usually called a “pickup group;” and it is conducted by Lou Bring, who was probably one of the conductors working on recordings for soundtracks. Of greater interest is his approach to three Rachmaninoff preludes, two from the Opus 23 set (the third in D minor and the sixth in E-flat major) and the fifth (in G major) in the Opus 32 set. Note the absence of the “notorious” C-sharp minor prelude (the second in the Opus 3 collection). Levant was clearly more interested in the musical value than in mass approval. One wonders whether Rachmaninoff himself ever heard Levant play and what he thought about Levant’s pedal-heavy approach to the E-flat major selection.
Levant’s own composition, the very last track on the CD is “Blue Plate Special.” This probably would have been called a “novelty” piece when it was first released. It is basically a comic tone poem in miniature depicting a hash house in the midst of its daily lunchtime rush. Nevertheless, rhetorically it is far more convincing than the excerpts from Copland’s “Billy the Kid” ballet arranged for solo piano by Lukas Foss. This is music that thrives on Copland’s ability to take simple tunes and endow them with vibrant life through instrumentation. When they are just tunes they can do little more then prompt memories among those who have seen the ballet in performance.