Friday, September 21, 2018

Oscar Levant as Concerto Soloist

I decided to make a slight departure from my plan for covering the recordings made by pianist Oscar Levant for Columbia Records, collected in the eight-disc anthology A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant, by devoting a single article to the fifth and sixth CDs. The “titles” of these discs simply enumerate the composers included, which misses the significance of their contribution. What is important is that these discs present the only recordings of Levant’s concerto performances other than his classic record of George Gershwin’s concerto on the very first CD.

This “concerto collection” offers an intriguing mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. The fifth CD offers two of the long-standing warhorses in the piano concerto repertoire, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 (first) in B-flat minor and Edvard Grieg’s Opus 16 in A minor. The sixth CD contrasts these “standards” with concertos one is unlikely to encounter at concert performances (or, for that matter, on recordings), Aram Khachaturian’s Opus 38 in D-flat major and Anton Rubinstein’s Opus 70 (fourth) in D minor. The fifth CD also includes a performance of Arthur Honneger’s E major concertino, his only composition for piano and orchestra, which he composed in 1924 after his career as a composer had been established.

The conductor for both the Khachaturian and Rubinstein concertos is Dimitri Mitropoulos. The recordings were made relatively early in his career with the New York Philharmonic (then the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York). The Khachaturian recording was made in 1950, when Mitropoulos was co-conductor with Leopold Stokowski, while the Rubinstein recording was made in 1952, after he had become Music Director. The “New York band” also appears in the recording of the Grieg concerto, made in 1947 with Efrem Kurtz conducting. Levant plays the Tchaikovsky with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1947, while the Honegger is conducted by Fritz Reiner. That recording was made in 1949 when Reiner was conducting at the Metropolitan Opera. The ensemble for the concertino is given as the “Columbia Symphony Orchestra,” which was probably a pickup group that may have included members of the Met orchestra familiar with Reiner’s conducting style.

Photograph of Fritz Reiner from the time of his recording with Oscar Levant (from Amazon.com)

Nevertheless, that short Honegger selection stands out as the jewel in the “concerto crown,” so to speak. Levant certainly gives competent accounts of Tchaikovsky and Grieg; but there is not the sense of his own “personal spin” than one encounters in many of his solo Chopin performances. The Honegger performance, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air; and that freshness probably has a much to do with Reiner (a fearless advocate of modernism past and present) as with Levant. To be fair Mitropoulos was also an adventurous conductor. (His Columbia recording of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck may have had obvious flaws; but he never short-changed the uncompromisingly visceral rhetoric.) However, there is little adventure than can be mined from either Rubinstein (Tchaikovsky’s composition teacher) or even the Armenian vigor behind much of the Khachaturian score. On these two CDs the best things come in the smallest package.

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