Although the name of Josef Lhevinne, a pupil of Vassily Safonov, is engraved on the table of the Moscow Conservatory (he graduated from it in 1892), he is largely forgotten in Russia. On the contrary, Lhevinne is remembered in the USA, where he and his wife Rosina held teaching positions at the Julliard School of Music.
This Naxos CD contains all his preserved recordings, both commercially issued and unissued: most of them are electric solo recordings made for US Victor from 1928 to 1936. In addition, there is Mozart Sonata in D for two pianos, K. 448 (1937), where Lhevinne is joined by his wife Rosina, a thrilling account of Debussy-Ravel Fêtes, also with Rosina (1935), and four short acoustic items recorded ca. 1920 for Pathé USA. Lhevinne was likely past his prime when he made his electric recordings: for the most part, all these are encores, not larger pieces. But the quality of these performances speaks for itself, and I am grateful for that the recorded legacy of this pianist is on the level of his legendary reputation. Especially impressive are Chopin Études and Strauss/Schulz-Evler `Auf der schönen blauen Donau' - paraphrase.
Piano gurus of the XX century occasionally ascribed some aspects in the style of contemporary pianists to Lhevinne's impact, but for laymen as me the picture is different: my perception of Lhevinne's sound and his interpretations is based on my previous knowledge of more recent romantic heroes. Harold Schonberg advertised Jorge Bolet as a man with `Horowitz fingers, but Lhevinne's sound', and I basically agree. Lhevinne's touch is powerful and clear at once. There are no signs of Bolet's magic legato, but the program of this CD gives no chances to show it. Another great pianist, whom I keep in mind when I listen to Lhevinne, is Wilhelm Backhaus. What unites them, is strong rhythmic discipline, powerful chords and some kind of aggressive unsentimentality - a feature not so unusual for a German pianist, but really surprising for a man from Eastern Europe. But Backhaus, the winner of Rubinstein 1905 competition, was really an atypical German virtuoso, while the 10 years older Lhevinne, the winner of Rubinstein 1895 competition, was likely an atypical Russian virtuoso. He does not resemble Rachmaninov (his almost classmate in Moscow) or Hoffmann and is worlds far from Friedman. To judge upon this CD, Lhevinne used asynchronization of hands more sparsely than all the above mentioned.
If I were to choose the absolute high points of this CD, I would recommend four tracks: Chopin's `Octave' Study in B minor (Op. 25, No. 10), Chopin's `Winter Wind' Study in A minor (Op. 25, No. 11), the Schulz-Evler Danube-paraphrase and the 1920 Schumann-Tausig transcription `Der Kontrabandiste'. For some years I could not understand, why Géza Anda who championed the `Octave' Study in the 1950-s (cf. his Op. 25 on Testament) maltreated Lhévinne as a `mechanicus'. Now I know: Lhévinne played this study even better. The `Winter Wind' (recorded in the same session, June 10, 1935) strikingly resembles Backhaus' rendition - not B's first variant (1927), but his second and last variant (1952). Both L 1935 and B 1952 offer an uncompromising and tough `Winter Wind', with rushing scales, waves of sonority and a thundering climax: these are the most grandiose versions of Op. 25.11 I know. Backhaus is more sophisticated, but Lhévinne has greater immediate impact. Carl Tausig made a wonderful transcription of Schumann's Lied in a Presto pace: when you listen, how naturally Lhévinne is shifting from the coloratura section on the text `Ich bin der Kontrabandiste' to a serenade-like line `Meine Li-i-e-be', you nearly feel the breath of a singer. Alas, most modern performers of Lied transcriptions only play the notes, but don't hear the song behind it.
Other effective performances on the CD are Fêtes (track 14), Schumann's Toccata (track 4) and Chopin's B flat minor Prelude Op. 28, No. 16 (track 11). Mozart's Sonata for two pianos (1-3) is fine, though not on the level of Fêtes. Chopin's Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53 and Rachmaninov's G minor Prelude, Op. 23, No. 5, are not to my liking.
Ward Marston's transfers are very fine.