The Piano Files

The Noble Pianism of Josef Lhévinne

A small but precious discography has inspired listeners for nearly a century.
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Josef Lhévinne

Recordings can help a musician’s artistry survive long after they have died. Even in cases where pianists preserved few recorded performances, their playing and reputation can live on when the music-making in these audible documents warrants continued attention. One such artist is Josef Lhévinne, a Russian pianist also famous as a teacher whose handful of recordings continue to be revered.

Although Lhévinne was celebrated in his lifetime, he wasn’t as focused on his performing career as his wife Rosina had thought he should be — in fact, she put her career aside in order to support her husband’s (she was a phenomenal pianist too). Both taught extensively after moving to the US in 1919, and for all the critical acclaim Josef received, he somehow made only about an hour’s worth of studio discs before he died not long before his 70th birthday in 1944, all of shorter pieces — and yet several of these are considered reference recordings for those compositions.

Lhévinne’s RCA discs were regularly reissued on long-playing records (LPs) soon after that playback format became the norm in 1950, and they have appeared on CD several times too. As a result, his playing has become far better known than that of many of his contemporaries, even those who recorded more than him. There is indeed much to admire in his pianism, which is characterized by exquisitely beautiful tone, clear textures, and phenomenal control.

His first recording may be his most famous, and it is one of the most lionized of all historical piano performances: a May 21, 1928 disc of Schulz-Evler’s paraphrase of Johann Strauss’s An der schönen blauen Donau — the iconic Blue Danube Waltz (a work we heard played by Rosita Renard). Lhévinne’s legendary reading has been so universally praised and played that many listeners were surprised when hearing others play the full work, as Lhévinne had to make cuts to the transcription to fit the work onto the two sides of the 12-inch RCA 78rpm disc (which held only about 4 minutes of music on each side).

What incredible tonal colours, rhythmic vitality, deftly defined articulation, sumptuous timing, and magical pedal effects, with an infectious bounce that infuses his reading with optimism and charm. This glorious recording is a perfect example of the artist’s impeccable pianism, a performance that continues to delight listeners over 90 years after it was captured in the studio.

Lhévinne would not produce another record until 1935, when he made some more recordings that continue to be considered reference readings, among them this account of Schumann’s Toccata in C Major Op.7. He plays here with a refined sonority, fluid legato, burnished melodic lines, and creative voicing in the left hand, resisting the temptation to resort to speed and brashness at the expense of clarity and beauty.

The Chopin Études are a marvellous opportunity for pianists to demonstrate their dexterity and musical intelligence, and these masterpieces can be played in so many valid ways. Lhévinne set down glowing readings of four of these works (would that we had them all!) on June 10, 1935: Op.10 No.11 and Op.25 Nos.6, 10, & 11. In works where many pianists try to dazzle with brute force and extreme speed, Lhévinne holds the listener’s rapt attention with his incredible clarity and beauty of sound in every note: with exquisite colours, mindfully crafted phrasing, elegant craftsmanship, clarity of texture, and inspired musicality, his virtuosity fully at the service of the music. The Winter Wind Étude (the last in this selection) impresses not through pacing and power, but with his intelligent use of dynamics, nuance, and voicing.

Like many artists of his generation, Lhévinne made some radio broadcasts, but unfortunately the bulk of those that survive feature the same short works he also recorded for RCA; some of these, however, reveal some more expansive playing than his already exceptional discs, like this November 3, 1935 Magic Key program performance of Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise in A-Flat Major Op.53.

After a charmingly old-fashioned spoken introduction by the announcer, Lhévinne gives a marvellous traversal of this Chopin favourite that is a bit wilder than his justly acclaimed 1936 studio effort, with a pronounced rhythmic bite, beautifully voiced chords, incredible octaves (he was famous for them, and no wonder!), and a gorgeous sonority throughout; the latter should be considered key component of technique, as there’s no point in playing fast if the sound isn’t refined. With Lhévinne, we get beauty of sound and so much more, in abundance, and thus Chopin’s legendary Polonaise — as did the Études above — thrills the listener with its combination of noble poise and power.

It is surely inconceivable to music lovers today that a pianist of Lhévinne’s stature should have only recorded enough to fit on a single CD — and no large-scale works among them! — but that has sadly been the case with many legendary musicians. Fortunately, we live in an age with easier access than ever to historical recordings so we can experience these great performers’ artistry many decades after they died.

Even more amazing is that previously unobtainable and unknown performances by such artists continue to be discovered: very recently, the Marston Records label put together a set of the complete known Josef Lhévinne recordings that includes not just his celebrated studio discs with some familiar broadcasts but also some never-before-heard performances by the artist that had been completely unknown to even the most connected private collectors, among them a Tchaikovsky Concerto and Brahms Quartet — click here to investigate.

While we can now expand our perspective of Lhévinne’s artistry through these new discoveries, for all intents and purposes his posthumous reputation has been founded upon a precious few studio recordings that have mesmerized listeners for generations. We will always wish that the greats had recorded more but being able to enjoy anything at all from artists of yesteryear is a gift to be appreciated.


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