RAYMOND LEWENTHAL: THE COMPLETE RCA & COLUMBIA ALBUM COLLECTION / Sony Classical 19075853642
CD 1: ALKAN: 12 Études in the Minor Keys: Nos. 4-7, Symphonie pour piano; No. 12, Le festin d’Ésope. Troisieme de recueil de chants: Barcarolle. Grande sonate, “Les quatre ages”: Quasi-Faust / Raymond Lewenthal, pno / originally RCA Victor LSC-2815 (1965)
CD 2: LISZT-THALBERG-PIXIS-HERZ-CZERNY-CHOPIN: Hexameron. LISZT-BELLINI: Reminiscences de Norma / Lewenthal, pno / originally RCA Victor LSC-2895 (1966)
CD 3: HENSELT: Piano Concerto in F min., Op. 16. LISZT-LEWENTHAL: Totentanz / Lewenthal, pno; London Symphony Orchestra; Charles Mackerras, cond. / originally Columbia MS 7252 (1972)
CD 4: RUBINSTEIN: Piano Concerto No. 4 in D min., Op. 70. SCHARWENKA: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C min: Finale / Lewenthal, pno; London Symphony Orch.; Eleazar de Cavalho, cond. / originally Columbia MS 7394 (1974)
CD 5: ALKAN: Sonatine. Le tambour bat aux champs. Esquisses: Nos. 1, 7, 11, 12, 39, 45, 47. Funeral March for a Dead Parrott.* 12 Études in the Major Keys: No. 8 in Ab. Petit conte. Le mois / Lewenthal, pno/*cond; *Alfred Genovese, Henry Schuman, Leonard Arner, ob; Loren Glickman, bsn; Metropolitan Opera Chorus / originally Columbia M 30234 (1971)
CD 6: LISZT: Années de Pèlerinage 1re Année: Suisse S 160 / Lewenthal, pno (first release)
CD 7: LISZT: Années de Pèlerinage 2e Année: Italie S 161 / Lewenthal, pno (first release)
CD 8: RAYMOND LEWENTHAL DISCUSSES AND ILLUSTRATES AT THE KEYBOARD: Henselt’s Piano Concerto; Liszt’s Totentanz; Rubinstein’s Piano Concerto No. 4; Scharwenka’s Finale from Piano Concerto No. 2; The Wildly Original Highly Audacious Grotesquely Humorous Daringly Adventurous Touchingly Lyrical And Strangely Beautiful Music Of Charles-Valentin Alkan / originally issued on individual 7” discs as bonuses when you bought the Columbia LPs of these works
Short, stocky, and muscular with a face like Edward G. Robinson, Raymond Lewenthal looked more like a bantam-weight prizefighter, which he never was, than the concert pianist he became. Born in San Antonio, Texas to Russian-Jewish parents in August 1923, Raymond later upped his birth date by three years to make himself appear younger than he was, as did Russian pianist Shura Cherkassky, who was also short and young-looking for his age. After spending several years as a child actor in Hollywood, he studied the piano there with Cherkassky’s mother, Lydia, later moving on to studies with Olga Samaroff-Stokowski, who was also born in San Antonio as Lucy Mary Olga Hickenlooper. Samaroff-Hickenlooper had been a pupil of Élie-Miriam Delaborde, the illegitimate son of composer and piano virtuoso Charles-Valentin Alkan, whose music Lewenthal would eventually champion, but at the time he was very young and the music of Alkan was foreign to him.
Lewenthal made his debut in 1948, playing the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 with Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Philadelphia Orchestra. This was a unique gesture on Mitropoulos’ part since he was noted for playing that concerto when he conducted it himself. The success of that concert led to Lewenthal’s New York recital debut two weeks later. His career seemed to be well and truly launched; like his slightly older colleague and friend William Kapell, he was hailed as one of the top young American pianists. They shared a similar style built around the flashy, virtuosic playing of such Russian pianists as Benno Moiseivich and Vladimir Horowitz, whom they both admired, but Kapell was the first on the scene, the media darling, and the one with the lucrative RCA Victor contract. In 1953 tragedy struck both of them. Lewenthal was mugged in Central Park in August by a gang of hoodlums who broke both his hands and arms while Kapell, returning from a successful concert tour of Australia, was killed in a plane crash.
Both incidents shook Lewenthal to his core. In a later reminiscence, he wrote of the experience:
On the afternoon of 29 October 1953, I was slowly making my way up Madison Avenue in New York City, returning to my apartment after a brief, labored walk. I was weak as a kitten, recovering from a horrible incident. Three months earlier, on a bright summer evening, 3 August, strolling across Central Park to the West Side to visit friends who lived directly across town from me, I was suddenly set upon and beaten by a gang of some twenty thugs armed with clubs and sticks. The doctor who read the x-rays at the receiving hospital to which I was taken declared there were no broken bones. I was moved to another hospital where it was discovered that, among other injuries, seven bones had been broken in my hands and arms…a terrifying experience for anyone, but particularly for a pianist with a budding career. No one can imagine the fears of that night when my whole life, all I had worked for so many years, was annihilated in a few brief seconds.
As I came up Madison Avenue on 29 October on one of my first solo convalescent walks, I suddenly thought of Willy. “I must call him, he should be back from Australia by now.” The thought brightened my spirits; Kapell had been unfailingly kind to me and encouraging and helpful, and now I was sorely in need of some encouragement. When I entered my apartment, the voice of a news commentator on the radio came out at me: “There has been a crash outside of San Francisco of a plane coming from Australia. All passengers killed. Among those on board was the pianist, William Kapell.” I probably aged ten years that day. All I could say over and over was, “All that work, all that work…” For above all, Willy was an incredible worker, unendingly developing and honing that great, wonderful talent of his.
There was nothing of the glib wunderkind syndrome about Willy. He worked prodigiously, and said so, unlike some artists who prefer to give the impression that their talent is so God-given that they seldom have to practice, and equally unlike some others who, indeed, do have to practice an hour or two a day to keep the standard repertoire in their fingers. It has always seemed to me that a violinist who can keep the Tchaikovsky Concerto going with little or no practice could challenge himself with the Ysaÿe Six Unaccompanied Sonatas, and that the pianist who finds the Beethoven “Waldstein” Sonata a bed of roses might discover a few thorns in Godowsky’s Studies on the Chopin Etudes. It is, I think, precisely at this point where the challenge occurs, the point of friction where the real sparks begin to fly. That Willy was enormously gifted for music and for the piano goes without saying, and yet he had obstacles to overcome. Anna Lou, his widow, once pointed out to me that Willy’s hand was unusual. It was square, very muscular and strong, somewhat typical of the kind of hand which Josef Hofmann had (though not as small), and which is thought by many to be the best kind of piano hand—in spite of the fact that Chopin, Liszt, Busoni, and Rachmaninoff had long, slender fingers. The four fingers of Willy’s hands were of almost equal length, which helped him to achieve great evenness and speed. However, his thumb was short, which caused him anxiety and problems. Passing under with evenness in scales and passages demanded hours of work. Also, there was a web of flesh between his fourth and fifth fingers which reached almost to the length of the lower finger joint. At one time he even consulted a surgeon about an operation to cut the web (wisely, the doctor refused). These were great physical handicaps which Willy worked prodigiously and constantly to overcome—day after day he spent eight to twelve hours slaving away, with the cigarette stubs mounting higher and higher in the ashtray. It is probably not coincidental that light workers often have a cold aloofness and limited commitment to their work, a glib facility about their playing. The greater the temperament, the harder it may be to control it—and the control must be dearly bought. The artist with lesser temperament or “nerves” usually doesn’t have to work as hard. The Maria Callases and the Vladimir Horowitzes, on the other hand, have all worked demonically and there is an intensity in their music which is seldom found in the two-hour-a-day brand of virtuoso. Even if Willy had had no difficulties whatsoever to overcome, he would never have spent a mere hour or two at his work—it was too much a part of him.
Although not as badly crippled or for so long a time as Carol Rosenberger would be from being stricken with polio, the attack on Lewenthal was a blow not only to his abilities to continue his playing career but to his very livelihood. Unlike Rosenberger, who was lucky enough to be surrounded in France by friends and have the support of Nadia Boulanger so that she could teach, Lewenthal was pretty much on his own. Playing the piano was all he really knew. It took him two years to recover his skills enough to make a few recordings for Westminster, and even then he had to rest between takes and was clearly not up to performing or touring on a regular basis. Despondent, he went to France, where he took a few lessons with Alfred Cortot, but either Cortot wasn’t a terribly good teacher or Lewenthal wasn’t receptive to his methods, for although he had a good grasp of keyboard skills he seldom played with that easy legato flow and deep-in-the-keys touch that Cortot had in abundance. Lewenthal unashamedly described himself as an “octave thrower, long-distance arpeggioer and general producer of volcanic rumbles.”
And indeed, every recording I’ve heard of Lewenthal, including his October 1951 Carnegie Hall recital, shows him to be the American equivalent of Hungarian pianist György Cziffra, a dynamic super-virtuoso who played in a clean, straightforward style that flew across the keyboard like a rocket. Indeed, his technique was so good that he was sometimes tempted to take music at a speed faster than it could really bear. If you slowed down the recording, you would hear that he hit every single note without missing or smudging any of them, but occasionally he could be a little too fast. On the plus side, this put him in the super-virtuoso class which at the time was occupied only by Cziffra, Horowitz and a very young Martha Argerich, but in my view both Cziffra and Lewenthal “bound” their phrases better and more musically than the other two, who I never felt had a very good grasp of legato no matter how dazzling their keyboard pyrotechnics. Lewenthal had a finer sense of musical architecture.
Lewenthal continued to make recordings for Westminster: an album of Scriabin pieces, another of various composers’ Toccatas, a third called “Moonlight and Keyboard,” Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (conducted by Maurice Abravanel) and yet another, around 1960, of Beethoven’s three most popular sonatas, the “Pathétique,” “Moonlight” and “Appassionata.” The first two of these sonatas were reissued on CD by a small label called Tidal, but unfortunately the “Appassionata” is only available if you can find a copy of the original LP and spend a pretty penny for it. I’d love to hear it someday, however, because the way he rips through the highly dramatic first movement of the “Pathétique” is not only dazzling but emotionally powerful.
In 1960 he began concertizing again, performing Liszt’s treacherous Sonata in B minor in Rio de Janeiro in August of that year. He was restless, and looking for a new project that would well and truly re-launch his career. During one of his visits to France, he found what he was looking for in the quirky, technically difficult and virtually unknown music of Alkan. He threw himself into learning and playing it, somehow thinking in the back of his mind that it just might help both him and the composer to bring it to light.
Yet it was to be three more years until he was given an opportunity to do just that. During his long period of recovery, yet another American pianist had replaced Kapell as the media darling, and that was Van Cliburn, who surprisingly won the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow—and he, too, was awarded an RCA Victor recording contract. In the meantime, Lewenthal continued to play standard concert repertoire and, in 1962, got stuck recording George Gershwin’s Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue in London with Yugoslav conductor Oskar Danon and the Metropolitan (London) Symphony Orchestra. Judging from his uncharacteristically lackluster playing in these works, Lewenthal must have hated the assignment, thinking it might accidentally brand him as a purveyor of pop classical works. This lackluster approach particularly hurt the Piano Concerto, but in the Rhapsody, prodded by Danon’s surprisingly jazzy, idiomatic style, his laid-back approach actually helped him sound a bit relaxed and swinging. Fortunately, the album, titled A Gershwin Concert, was only issued by Reader’s Digest for purchase by their readers and not circulated by RCA Victor through their normal distribution channels.
His big break came on November 30, 1963 when WBAI, a relatively small New York FM station at the top end of the dial (99.5 FM), invited him on to talk about and play examples of Alkan’s music for two hours. Somehow or other, he was able to get the word out to some powerful people in the classical business, possibly through the station’s music director who happened to be none other than John Corigliano. The response to the program was overwhelming and brought a request to Lewenthal from G. Schirmer to prepare an edition of Alkan’s piano music for publication. In addition, the ensuing exposure led to his being invited to give a recital at Town Hall in September 1964, his first public appearance in New York in 12 years. As stated by Wikipedia:
This led to an RCA recording of Alkan’s music which was met with critical raves, and then a three-concert Liszt Cycle in New York and London, among many other performances. Lewenthal came to be considered the leader of the “Romantic Revival”, reintroducing solo and chamber works by many important but neglected 19th-century composers such as Moscheles, Goetz, Herz, Hummel, Henselt, Scharwenka, Rubinstein, Reubke, Field, Dussek and others, as well as reviving overlooked works by famous composers. He also took an active role in such events as the Romantic Festival at Butler University (Indianapolis) and the Newport Music Festival. In 1971 he accepted an invitation to a well received tour of Southern Africa. Lewenthal taught at the Mannes College of Music and The Tanglewood Music Festival, and was a faculty member of the Manhattan School of Music for a number of years beginning in the mid-1970s. Among his doctoral students was Israeli pianist Astrith Baltsan.
Ironically, Lewenthal wasn’t the first pianist to record any works by Alkan, That honor goes to Dutch-German virtuoso Egon Petri, one of Ferruccio Busoni’s pupils, who recorded the Symphonie pour Piano in the early 1950s (reissued on Pearl GEMM CD 9966), but since it was just one work on a potpourri album and didn’t get much media push, it went by unnoticed. A few years after Lewenthal’s first Alkan LP, the French Government made him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for promoting his music. Lewenthal also received Grammy nominations for the Alkan LP and its follow-up, The Operatic Liszt.
At long last, Lewenthal was back in the top tier of classical pianists—in fact, in a niche by himself. But deep down, he became unhappy about his public image. Taking their cue from the then-popular Gothic TV soap opera Dark Shadows, his agents made him dress up for his concerts in a Dracula-styled cape and top hat, come on stage carrying a candelabra to the sound of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor played on an organ (he also had his programs printed in mauve on a lighter mauve background). What probably started out as a bit of a joke and a promotional gimmick soon became his entire public persona. Lewenthal enjoyed it at first, but eventually felt he was being reduced to a kind of traveling freak show. Unlike organist Virgil Fox, who reveled in public attention and spectacle, wearing a beret and Hippie clothing while he played Bach at the Fillmore Auditorium, Lewenthal started to feel like a performing monkey.
Those close to him, who shall remain unnamed, say he began drinking rather heavily and became sullen and dour even when sober at his classes. He enjoyed being back on top but was embarrassed by the packaging. By the time he returned to the RCA studios in 1968, his hands were shaking so badly that none of the takes could be used. RCA had to scrap them and his contract was terminated. He was picked up by Victor’s rival, Columbia records, in 1971, and they managed to get three albums out of him, but they too let him go. He then signed with EMI in 1975 and made his last two LPs.
I was busy trying to get through college during those years and didn’t have much time or disposable income to indulge myself; in fact, I had to work two part-time jobs, one in the evenings, to help pay for my education. Because of this, I missed seeing Lewenthal in person, but a friend of mine went to every recital and raved to me—about his playing, yes, but also about the image of the caped, top-hatted artist emerging from the wings amid a cloud of smoke, carrying his candelabra to the piano and “putting on a show.”
Eventually, matters took themselves into their own hands. Lewenthal’s surly attitude at classes led to his being let go by some colleges as a teacher. Either his drinking or some other ailment began to impair his playing again. By 1977 he started to fade from view. He left his small apartment at 51 E. 78th Street and moved upstate to Hudson, New York, where he lived in semi-seclusion. His concertizing was reduced to almost nothing owing to a bad heart condition, and he died on November 21, 1988, aged 65.
A personal footnote: in 1986, two years before Lewenthal’s death, I attended a concert of Alkan’s music at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. When it was over, I approached one of the artists and told him that I felt compelled to come and hear this music live because I had lived in northern New Jersey during the period when Lewenthal was giving his concerts. His eyes popped open. “Raymond Lewenthal!” he said. “Did you get to see him?” I admitted that I hadn’t. “Those concerts were legendary,” he said. “As good as he played on the records, in person he was simply fantastic!”
And now, boys and girls, we finally get around to reviewing the actual records themselves. As usual, the Big Labels like Sony Classical take a rotten attitude towards any reviewers not connected to major publications when it comes to providing review copies, thus I was forced to review this set via streaming audio except for the first album, which I already had on CD (no thanks to Sony). BUT! Since I promised in the title of this review to give you “Raymond Lewenthal: The Full Monty,” I’m going to surprise you by reviewing nearly all of his recordings—at least, as many as I could find online, which was a surprisingly large amount.
CARNEGIE HALL RECITAL / D. SCARLATTI: 3 Sonatas: in C, K. 132 (L. 457); in E min., K. 198 (L. 22); in C, K. 159 (L. 104). BEETHOVEN: Piano sonata No. 30 in E, Op. 109. Für Elise. HUMMEL: Variations on “Armide.” LISZT: Piano Sonata in B min. RAVEL: Sonatine. CHOPIN: Polonaise-Fantasie in Ab, Op. 61. Nocturne in F#, Op. 15 No. 2. PROKOFIEV: Toccata, Op. 11. MOSZKOWSKI: Etude in F, Op. 72 No. 6. DOHNÁNYI: Capriccio in F min., Op. 28 No. 6 / Raymond Lewenthal, pno / available for free streaming on YouTube
We are all indebted to the anonymous poster “op106” who put this entire concert up on YouTube for us to hear and enjoy. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only surviving recording of Lewenthal’s playing before his hands and arms were broken. There are moments when he does indeed rush headlong through some of the music in order to impress the audience, such as the first movement of the Beethoven Sonata and the Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie, yet there are also some wonderfully light and airy moments as well. I particularly liked the way he played the Scarlatti, most of the Beethoven (including a refreshingly non-sentimental Für Elise), the Liszt Sonata (one of his pet pieces) and the Ravel Sonatine. The recording sounds as if it was taken from an LP pressing—lots of “surface swish” as well as ticks and crackle—yet I could not find any reference to an LP of this online. The sound quality, LP noise aside, is first-rate; this was obviously a tape made in-house by Carnegie Hall and not by an audience member on a portable tape recorder. Beethoven’s Für Elise, the Chopin Nocturne and the small pieces by Moszkowski and Dohnányi were his encores.
TOCCATAS / DELLA CIAIA: Toccata in G min. J.S. BACH: Toccata in C min. CZERNY: Toccata in C. ALKAN: Toccatina in C min. SCHUMANN: Toccata in C. PROKOFIEV: Toccata from “Pour le Piano.” RAVEL: Le Tombeau de Couperin: Toccata. JELOBINSKY: 6 Short Études: Toccata. LEWENTHAL: Toccata alla Scarlatti. MENOTTI: Ricerare & Toccata on a Theme from the Opera “The Old Maid and the Thief” / Raymond Lewenthal, pno / part of Deutsche Grammophon 00028947795278, originally issued on Westminster XWN 18362
This album was, miraculously, made in July 1955, less than two full years after Lewenthal had his hands and arms broken in Central Park. He had clearly recovered all of his pianistic skills, but a careful comparison with the 1951 Carnegie Hall recital shows a difference. Whereas before everything came smoothly to him, he now has to work doubly hard in order to produce the same dazzling effects—but dazzling they are. He also plays a surprisingly sensitive versions of the Bach and Ravel Toccatas, gives us his very first recoding of anything by Alkan, and surprises us at the end by throwing in a Ricerare and Toccata by none other than Gian-Carlo Menotti, which I didn’t even know existed. His own Toccata alla Scarlatti has since been played and recorded by a few other pianists, including Viktoria Lakissova.
This album, the Scriabin LP and excerpts from the one titled “Moonlight and Keyboard” have been issued on a 10-CD set by Deutsche Grammophon which they have optimistically titled The Liszt Legacy (shamelessly copying the cover art from this LP for their own use). The other pianists represented here are Claudio Arrau, Alicia de Larrocha, Benno Moiseiwitsch and Egon Petri, the irony being that most of them did not study with any Liszt pupils and some of them, particularly de Larrocha, never played a note of Liszt in their lives.
VERS LA FLAMME / SCRIABIN: Fantasie, Op. 28. Vers la Flamme. 5 Last Preludes, Op. 74. 24 Preludes, Op. 11 / Raymond Lewenthal, pno / part of Deutsche Grammophon 00028947795278, originally issued on Westminster XWN 18399
This, Lewenthal’s second LP, was recorded in June 1956. It is outstanding in every way; he was clearly one of the greatest Scriabin interpreters of all time, and it’s really a shame that he became detoured by all those Romantic concerti and was never able to record the Sonatas or any other Études or Preludes by Scriabin. I would pit these recordings, sound limitations aside, against anyone’s.
Interestingly, however, he does not play the Op. 11 Preludes in numerical order, but rearranges them in his own order as follows:
 No.1 in C Major : Vivace —– 0:48
 No.5 in D Major : Andante cantabile —– 1:34
 No.7 in A: Allegro assai —– 0:54
 No.9 in E : Andantino —– 1:43
 No.20 in C min: Appassionato —– 1:02
 No.12 in G# min: Andante —– 1:38
 No.11 in B: Allegro assai —– 1:41
 No.18 in F min: Allegro agitato —– 0:47
 No.10 in C# min: Andante —– 1:16
 No.13 in GH: Lento —– 1:36
 No.19 in EH: Lento —– 1:13
 No.4 in E min: Lento —– 1:47
 No.3 in G: Vivo —– 0:42
 No.16 in BH min: Misterioso —– 1:47
 No.17 in AH: Allegretto —– 0:40
 No.14 in EH min: Presto —– 0:49
 No.15 in DH: Lento —– 2:08
 No.8 in F# min: Allegro agitato —– 1:12
 No.2 in A min: Allegretto —– 2:02
 No.21 in BH: Andante —– 1:32
 No.6 in B min: Allegro —– 0:44
 No.22 in G min: Lento —– 1:06
 No.23 in F: Vivo —– 0:31
 No.24 in D min: Presto —– 0:44
MOONLIGHT AND KEYBOARD / DEBUSSY: Clair de lune. LISZT: Liebestraum, No. 3: Nocturne. TRAD.: Greensleeves. SAINT-SAËNS, arr. GODOWSKY: The Swan. MENDELSSOHN, arr. LISZT: Auf flügeln des Gesänges. RACHMANINOV, arr. LEWENTHAL: How Fair This Spot. RUBINSTEIN: Romance in Eb. MASSENET: Élegie. SCHUBERT, arr. LISZT: Serenade. CHOPIN: Nocturnes: in Eb, Op. 9 No. 2; in F#, Op. 15 No. 2. Waltz in C# min., Op. 64 No. 2. Fanraisie-Impromptu, Op. 66. BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 14, “Moonlight,” 1st mvmt. SCHUMANN: Träumerai / Lewenthal, pno / originally issued on Westminster XWN 18403; first nine tracks reissued on Deutsche Grammophon 00028947795278
I’m sure Lewenthal made this album, recorded in July 1957, only because he really needed the money, because it’s typical of the kind of LP that a serious classical listener would never buy. The cover tells you as much. This is your typical bachelor-pad-chick-seducing LP, full of “dreamy” classical music that’s just so pretty that it makes your date of the evening start oozing. I doubt that he ever played most of this music in concert except, perhaps, one or two as encores because they’re not that challenging on his mind or technique, but he does a very nice job on the Debussy, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninov pieces.
RACHMANINOV: Piano Concerto No. 2. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini / Lewenthal, pno; Vienna State Opera Orch.; Maurice Abravanel, cond / Westminster LP XWN 18884, available for free streaming or download at Internet Archive
Although not released until 1960, this is clearly a mono-only album, thus I would place the year of recording as being 1958 since Lewenthal was still recovering and could really only make one album per year at this stage. This is the only recording of the Rachmaninov Second Concerto I can stomach to listen to other than the one made by William Kapell with William Steinberg and the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, which was basically the reduced Philadelphia Orchestra. The big reason why I like both recordings so much is the conducting. I always felt that Maurice Abravanel got the short end of the stick from American critics, who took him for granted because he “only” conducted the “inferior” Utah Symphony Orchestra for many years, but he was a really excellent conductor. Despite his very French-sounding name, Abravanel was born of Sephardic Jewish parents in Salonika, then part of the Ottoman Empire but today part of Thessoloniki, Greece. For several years the Abravanels lived in the same house as Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, for whom young Maurice would play piano. Originally a rehearsal conductor at the Neustrelitz Opera, north of Berlin, in the 1920s, in the 1930s he became the principal conductor of George Balanchine’s Paris Ballet and then, in 1936, the youngest conductor to work at the Metropolitan Opera. He arrived at the Utah Symphony in 1947 due to that company’s desperation: the orchestra was a wreck and Abravanel, who to that point had never been a music director of an established orchestra, basically asked them, “What have you got to lose?” He built them up into one of the finest non-East Coast orchestras in America and stayed there for 30 years, so this LP was clearly a rare example of his moonlighting, possibly out of respect for Lewenthal, with another orchestra.
Both the Kapell and Lewenthal performances have snap and drive to them but do not linger or droop, thus this recording must have disappointed a great many people who consider the Rachmaninov Second Concerto the epitome of Romantic ooze and thought this LP would be a nice sequel to “Moonlight and Keyboard.”
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 8, “Pathétique,” 14, “Moonlight” & 23, Appasionata” / Lewenthal, pno / originally Westminster Gold WGS-8119, first two sonatas issued digitally by Tidal
Recorded in 1960, by which time Lewenthal was finally beginning to be able to perform and record more regularly, this is his first recording that I can trace in stereo. Deutsche Grammophon, which now owns the complete Westminster catalog, has shown no interest in reissuing this, but who can blame them when Wilhelm Kempff’s inferior Beethoven Sonatas still sells so well on that label? For whatever reason Tidal, an online company that issues streaming-only digital albums, chose not to include the “Appassionata” Sonata in their release, and I cannot find a copy of that sonata anywhere online, but I’d certainly be interested in hearing it if it shows up. Lewenthal plays the other two sonatas pretty much “come scritto” or “as written,” with all the extremes in dynamics and headlong rush of notes that Beethoven put into the “Pathétique,” and his “Moonlight” Sonata is also played as written. Although my piano skills were far more limited than his, this is how I played them when I still had the ability to do so. I love these performances.
I won’t be discussing all of Lewenthal’s live performances from this point on, but these are of particular interest because they are so intense. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this 1960 Brazilian performance of the Liszt Piano Sonata is far better than his 1951 Carnegie Hall version, not because of the intensity but because there is a greater feel of unity in construction. Lewenthal had grown as a musician in the past five years, and these performances show it.
Since I already discussed the Gershwin LP earlier, I shall refrain from doing so here.
THE BERLIOZ OF THE PIANO / ALKAN: Le Festin d’Ésope. Symphonie pour Piano. La Vision. Barcarolle. Le tambour bat un Champs. Etude in Ab min. Piano Sonata: II. Quasi-Faust / available for free streaming on YouTube in 19 separate parts (live broadcast: WBAI, New York, November 30, 1963)
To the best of my knowledge, this historic broadcast has never been issued on LP, tape or CD, yet here it is, complete and in surprisingly good sound for its age. Most people don’t know that the program was advertised in the radio guide as The Berlioz of the Piano with the following description:
Nov. 30, 1963 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the strangest figures in music — the French composer, Charles-Valentin Alkan, who has been called ‘The Berlioz of the Piano.’ Busoni ranked Alkan with Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms, as ‘the greatest of post-Beethoven piano composers,’ and yet his name and music are unknown to all but a few musicians and music lovers. Raymond Lewenthal, brilliant young concert pianist, authority on Alkan, and author of a book on him, will play and discuss Alkan’s music in what is probably the first broadcast in America ever to be devoted to this composer. Lewenthal will give reasons for Alkan’s unjust neglect, and explain why he feels that an Alkan revival is at hand.
Please note that every piece included in his groundbreaking RCA Alkan album was performed on this broadcast, which began at the unusual time of 5:15 p.m. and went on until 7:00, with no breaks between except for the mandatory “station identification.”
What strikes the listener about Lewenthal’s speaking voice is that it not only has no trace of a Texas accent but, rather, sounds vaguely European in a put-on “cultured” way. This may have grown out of his youthful experience as a child actor or, I think more likely, the influence of Olga Samaroff/Lucy Hickenlooper when she was his teacher. Remember that “Samaroff” also turned her British husband (Leopold Stokowski) into a man with a vaguely Eastern European-kind-of-sounding accent for the rest of his life. But the one thing Lewenthal sounds like here is joyful. He was clearly enthusiastic about this well-prepared program and couldn’t wait to give Alkan to the world. Interestingly, although this program was given “live” in the radio studio, Lewenthal doesn’t play “Quasi-Faust, “Festin d’Ésope” or the piano Symphonie any more excitingly than he did on the studio recording. On the contrary, all of these performances are more relaxed and a few seconds longer than their LP counterparts, but the program remains, to me, an object-lesson in how to present well-grounded musicology in a way that is both informative for professional musicians and accessible to casual listeners. I still think that some of the comparisons he made here in certain of Alkan’s themes to other composers (all of whom came after him, but didn’t know his music) are a bit of a stretch, but they’re still interesting and the whole lecture-demonstration is superb.
In this program he also mentioned his biography of Alkan. I believe that this book was actually finished, but alas, has never been published. Yet another mystery.
ROMANTIC MELODIES FOR PIANO & ORCHESTRA / GRIEG: Piano Concerto in A min.: 1st mvmt. RACHMANINOV: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini: Variation 18. Prelude in C# min. Piano Concerto No. 2 in C min.: 3rd mvmt exc. TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bb min.: 1st mvmt exc. CHOPIN: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F: 2nd mvmt / Lewenthal, pno; Royal Philharmonic Orch.; George Weldon, cond / RCA Victor Record Club CSC-314
Although released in 1965, I have a feeling this turkey was recorded in 1962 when Lewenthal made his Gershwin recording since this is also with a British orchestra and conductor. As you can see, only one work is played complete, and that is the Rachmaninov Prelude in C# minor, although the first movement of the Grieg concerto and the second movement of the Chopin Second Concerto are also intact. The only track I was able to locate from this LP was the 3:51 first-movement excerpt of the Tchaikovsky First and, as in the case of the Gershwin Concerto, Lewenthal sounds utterly bored. They break off the movement right after the long horn notes interspersed with soft violin pizzicato; Lewenthal plays a couple of rolling arpeggios and it ends abruptly.
And now, FINALLY, we get to the material in the Sony set.
CD 1: The RCA Alkan Album
This one is so legendary that it’s been reissued a few times previously, including by Élan Recordings in 1996, a company that also issued the Henselt, Rubinstein, Scharwenka concerti and the Liszt Totentanz as a 2-CD set. Part of the reason it sold so well, in addition to being a musical introduction to Alkan for most people, was Lewenthal’s extended, pithy liner notes. Some of these liner notes were reprinted in the Élan release, but not the line I remembered best:
Some of you may be familiar with the English writer Stephen Potter—one-upmanship, and all that. Potter invented the term “to rilk.” Rilking is the sport of dropping a name of snob value that your proponent is quite unlikely to know, thereby stopping his flow. Now, stopping the flow is a very, very important part of one-upmanship. You who have bought this album are in possession of a wonderful weapon for stopping the flow. I should advise you to try “rilking,” or, rather, “Alking” your friends with the name of someone they are very unlikely to know, but should know: Alkan.
Alas, what happened was that so many millions of people bought this album that it was hard to “Alkan-ize” the snobs at parties, because suddenly Alkan was THE de rigeur composer among the Smart Set. Word has it that RCA, which expected good sales but not a miracle, could scarcely keep up with demands from the big record outlets for more boxes of albums to sell. And small wonder, for these are possibly the most authoritarian performances of Alkan’s music ever recorded, even better than Marc-André Hamelin, Bernard Ringeissen, Laurent Martin, Alessandro Deljavan, Alan Weiss or anyone else you can name. Only Egon Petri comes close. Lewenthal’s tight, concise yet emotional and powerful playing cuts to the heart of Alkan in a way that the others can only approximate.
CD 2: The Operatic Liszt
Although this album, too, sold in mass quantities and was also nominated for a Grammy (Lewenthal never won one), the music here is clearly inferior to the Alkan disc. This is Liszt at his most bullshitty, writing bravura, epic piano works based on some aria or duet from a popular opera. Both of these happen to be by Bellini, I Puritani’s “Suoni la tromba” and Norma, but the first piece, the Hexameron, is legendary for two reasons. No. 1, it’s damnably difficult to play (as is Alkan) and No. 2, although Liszt wrote the introduction, finale and one of the variations, the others were composed by colleagues of his whom he admired: Sigismond Thalberg, Johann Peter Pixis, Henri Herz, Carl Czerny and Frydryk Chopin. Both Élan and Sony Classical, in a single-disc reissue, included this as a bonus track on the rather short RCA Alkan disc, but here all of the albums are presented separately and complete as they were originally issued. Once again, the playing is fiery and musical, but I still think it was a mistake not to have recorded another Alkan album first and then move on to The Operatic Liszt.
As mentioned earlier, Lewenthal’s 1966 RCA recording sessions of the complete Liszt Années de Pèlerinage were shelved for more than a half-century for reasons unknown. I still think it was because most of the music here is quiet and gentle, not what audiences wanted to hear from Lewenthal at this stage of his career, though he was performing these and other Liszt pieces in his live concerts. Although the Columbia Alkan album actually came next, this isn’t the order that Sony used in this reissue, therefore the next album up is:
CD 3: Henselt Piano Concerto & Liszt Totentanz
One of Lewenthal’s greatest albums. In it, he galvanizes the Romantic concerto of Adolf von Henselt (1814-1889) as if it were a masterpiece by Beethoven, Schumann (to whom he compares it) or Brahms. In addition, it turns out that Liszt’s Totentanz, here in Lewenthal’s own arrangement, is a really excellent piece of music, one of his best in fact, and he plays the snot out of it. This was the second of his three Columbia LPs, and each of them, when originally issued, contained a bonus 7” disc on which Lewenthal analyzed the music, but Sony, greedy as ever for a few more dollars from you, chose to remove them from the albums they were originally part of and put them all together on a separate CD (No. 8 in the package).
As usual, Lewenthal’s chatty but erudite analysis of the Henselt Concerto is fascinating. Also as usual, Lewenthal and his conductor (the great Charles Mackerras in this case) make the music sound better than it really is. And Lewenthal was right: this very German composer practically invented the “Russian sound” with this concerto way back in 1846.He was also right in saying that this concerto is far better than one would expect before hearing it.
Although Totentanz is listed on both the front and back cover of the original LP as being by Liszt-Lewenthal, Raymond makes it clear in his introduction that he didn’t write a single note of it. What he did do was to incorporate some of what he felt were better and more original ideas from the first (unpublished) version into the final one, thus a more appropriate approbation would have been Liszt, arr. Lewenthal. Yet once again, the performance is a real barn-burner, even with its gentle moments of repose in the middle of the musical storm.
CD 4: Rubinstein Concerto No. 4; Scharwenka: Finale to Piano Concerto No. 2
Lewenthal almost convinced me, not just through his words but also through his playing, that the Henselt concerto was a great one, but not even his enthusiasm and all the tea in China could get me to like Anton Rubinstein’s Romantic dreck. Why a man of Lewenthal’s obviously high intellect was drawn to so much Romantic music when he virtually ignored so many 20th-century composers—not just the spiky ones like Stravinsky and Schoenberg, but also the melodic ones like Nikolai Medtner and Shostakovich—still baffles me. Medtner, in particular, could have used a champion like him. Just listen to the piano’s entrance in the first movement of the Rubinstein Concerto No. 4 with all its superfluous arpeggios and ponderous crashing chords that fill the air but say nothing. But of course I’m keeping this album because it is Lewenthal, and despite the empty rhetoric and paucity of musical invention, he does play it with energy and verve (and it is conducted with equal verve by the little-known Eleazar de Cavalho). Still, this album was, for me, the low point of the entire series.
CD 5: Alkan, “Funeral March for a Papagallo” and Other Discoveries
Here is the 1971 Columbia Alkan album, issued out of sequence. It starts out like a house on fire with the superb Sonatine before moving into two pieces he had played in his 1963 WBAI broadcast, Le tambour bat aux champs and Le Vision. There is also the Étude No. 8 in Ab and the very strange title piece, which is played by three oboes, a bassoon and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, conducted by Lewenthal. This is the real gem of the album, and I couldn’t find another recording of it anywhere online. Very, very funny in a tongue-in-cheek way because it is so obviously over-the-top for a dead parrot, and the music itself is almost surreal.
More than half the album is concerned with the Esquisses, the softest, most intimate and least quirky of Alkan’s compositions. Although of course I like them, most are not tops on my list of Alkan favorites. Lewenthal plays them exquisitely, even better than Steven Osborne on Hyperion or Laurent Martin on Naxos and Brilliant Classics, but after the Sonatine and the Dead Parrot Funeral they seem more like an aperitif than a juicy, filling dessert, excepting Les diablotins which Lewenthal plays better than anyone else. Had Lewenthal recorded the whole series of Esquisses as a separate LP, they might have enjoyed a better reception. I understand his enthusiasm for them, but this album, as I say, is programmed somewhat strangely. As usual, his spoken introduction to this Alkan music is pithy and largely entertaining.
CDs 6 & 7: Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, sets 1 & 2.
The two Liszt LPs were apparently recorded in 1966 for RCA Victor at Webster Hall in New York, but for some reason never issued. Although they are beautifully played, in fact quite sensitively and delicately for Lewenthal, they do lack the excitement and drama of his previous Alkan and Liszt LPs for the label, which may account for their being shelved for so long. It’s a good thing that Sony owns both RCA and Columbia masters or we probably wouldn’t ever have seen these albums.
My readers know that I’m scarcely a big fan of Abbé Liszt, the anti-Semite who sired a daughter even more hateful than he (Cosima von Bülow-Wagner). Although he championed Beethoven’s music at a time when it was scarcely known outside Austria and promoted the music of Chopin, Bellini, Meyerbeer (just before he became ‘a stinking Jew” to Wagner and Liszt), Berlioz, Schumann, Wagner and Brahms, he promoted himself above all. Unlike Alkan, whose music I find original, creative and fascinating, Liszt tended towards bombast and more formulaic writing, but sometimes he broke that pattern and wrote some really fine pieces. He was also one of those musicians who had the gift of synethesia, meaning that he could “hear” music as colors (as did Scriabin and Kandinsky). In my view, Cziffra and Lewenthal were the two very greatest Liszt pianists, and on these two CDs the music, though somewhat predictable in construction and direction, is charming, and Lewenthal brings his great sense of a score’s structure to bear to their performance. I especially liked “Orage” (Storm) from the first book, which Lewenthal plays with a wonderful “binding” of phrases that Horowitz couldn’t have duplicated in a million years. For those readers who, like myself, knew nothing about this music because we paid no attention to Liszt, here is a summary from Wikipedia:
Années de pèlerinage (French for Years of Pilgrimage) is a set of three suites for solo piano by Franz Liszt. Much of it derives from his earlier work, Album d’un voyageur, his first major published piano cycle, which was composed between 1835 and 1838 and published in 1842. Années de pèlerinage is widely considered as the masterwork and summation of Liszt’s musical style. The third volume is notable as an example of his later style. Composed well after the first two volumes, it displays less virtuosity and more harmonic experimentation.
The title Années de pèlerinage refers to Goethe’s famous novel of self-realization, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and especially its sequel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (whose original title Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre meant Years of Wandering or Years of Pilgrimage, the latter being used for its first French translation). Liszt clearly places these compositions in line with the Romantic literature of his time, prefacing most pieces with a literary passage from writers such as Schiller, Byron or Senancour, and, in an introduction to the entire work, writing:
Having recently travelled to many new countries, through different settings and places consecrated by history and poetry; having felt that the phenomena of nature and their attendant sights did not pass before my eyes as pointless images but stirred deep emotions in my soul, and that between us a vague but immediate relationship had established itself, an undefined but real rapport, an inexplicable but undeniable communication, I have tried to portray in music a few of my strongest sensations and most lively impressions.
It’s a shame that these albums are just a bit too long to fit onto one CD (42:43 & 45:31), but as in the case of all of these the timings were meant for an LP, which could only hold a maximum time of about 56 minutes on one disc—and most were engineered to contain 50 minutes or less.
CD 8: Raymond Lewenthal Discusses and Illustrates at the Keyboard
This CD is a compilation of the three 7” discs that were originally packaged with the Henselt, Rubinstein and Alkan LPs when they were first issued. I suppose that Sony felt they were being really clever to isolate them from the albums they were meant to accompany and put them onto a separate CD, which of course was never actually an album on Columbia, but to be honest I found them much more integral with the musical material to use them, as Lewenthal intended, as an introduction to the performances of the music they describe, so I burned them onto the proper music CDs.
This ends our survey of the Sony Classical set, but as mentioned earlier, Lewenthal then signed a deal with EMI which produced two more albums.
THE DUEL BETWEEN LISZT AND THALBERG / LISZT: Ballade No. 2 in B min. Funeral March from Donizetti’s “Dom Sébastien,” G. 402. THALBERG: Fantasy on Rossini’s “Moses,” Op. 33. Fantasy on Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” Op. 63 / Lewenthal, pno / Angel S-36079, 1975
Once again, Lewenthal returned not to more Alkan (though he should have) but to the superfluous fluff of “operatic fantasies” written by Liszt and his onetime rival, Sigismond Thalberg, and if you think the Liszt fantasies are rubbish, wait ‘til you hear Thalberg’s. Oh yes, they’re technically flashy, but so what? Liberace could also play a lot of flash on the piano—he was, after all, a very good technician of the keyboard. Ironically, all four of these tracks are available online for free streaming, so at least you can hear them if you wish. Perhaps it is an historically valuable document, however, as being one of the few times an intellectual virtuoso like Lewenthal actually recreated the playing style of Thalberg, who has pretty much ignored.
TOY SYMPHONIES & OTHER FUN / REINECKE: Toy Symphony in C. F. TAYLOR: Toy Symphony: Adagio & Finale. KLING: Kitchen Symphony. STEIBELT: 3 Bacchanales. GURLITT: Toy Symphony in C. MÉHUL: Ouverture Burlesque / Lewenthal, pno/cond; Ensemble of Toy Instruments & Strings / Angel SQ-1-36080, 1975
This album actually looks more interesting to me that its predecessor, but alas, not a a note of it is available for free streaming online. In fact, unless you’d like to buy a used copy of the original LP on Amazon for about $30, you probably won’t find it anywhere. A shame, too, because an alternate performance of the Reinecke Toy Symphony is available one YouTube, and although it sounds like a really cute piece of music, the pianist can’t touch Lewenthal’s skills.
* * * * * *
What, then, can we learn from this survey of Raymond Lewenthal’s recordings (in addition to some of the live material)? That he was a technically proficient pianist, yes, but nowadays his kind of virtuosity is commonplace, not unusual as it was back then. That he was almost irrevocably tied to the past and particularly the Romantic era, of course. But the real lesson one can learn from Lewenthal was that if one has a vision, sticks to it, and pours all of one’s heart and soul into it, you just may change the world a little. In his time it was not only Alkan who was ignored, although that composer suffered the most. The intimate, non-bombastic Liszt was also a stranger to most concert halls except when Lewenthal and a few others would play the Années de Pèlerinage or Nuages gris, and so too was Scriabin. In fact, I believe that Scriabin is still a stranger to most concert halls, as is Alkan; their work is much more prominent and available on CDs than it is in live concerts. And who today has embraced and revived Nikolai Medtner? No one, to my knowledge.
In his 1981 interview with David Dubal, Lewenthal told an interesting story regarding the music of Czerny, which he liked. He said that Czerny wrote so much and not all of it was of the highest order, but if you combed through his works you’d find some real gems. He then mentioned that Horowitz had recently programmed some really fine Czerny pieces, but that young pianists, wanting the same sort of success, were playing the exact same pieces. He asked one such pupil, Why bother? Horowitz played them superbly, go and find some unusual Czerny pieces of your own to play. The students just stared at him, uncomprehending. No initiative, no imagination.
And that, I feel, is what Lewenthal’s greatest legacy was, the push to refurbish one’s musical imagination.
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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