Born in Argentina, Levy built a varied career around Western Europe and America. Besides being a widely varied musician playing recitals, chamber music, orchestral concerts, Levy also built an impressive reputation as a top Lieder accompanist. But that’s not the half of it. As a scholar, he studied philosophy and psychology of music in Venice. He even extended his interests into Asian studies, including sonic thought effects in Sanskrit texts.
So besides an active piano career, Levy found the time to act as general secretary of the International Institute of Comparative Music. He’s given master classes in piano of course, but also in musical symbolism at the festival of Royan, the University of Perugia and the Venice Biennale. For ten years before moving to London – where he no lives – Levy founded and directed the “Planetarium of Arts” in Venice. (It promoted concerts, festivals, exhibitions, round tables, publications and master classes.)
Oh yes – Levy has also published several books on aesthetics. They carry titles such as: Euphony, The Sound of Life; Eternal Beauty and The Musician. All reflect his research into the vision of a multifaceted approach to culture as a vital part of existence. Obviously, with such a background, there’s more to Levy’s approach to music than making fingerings and dynamics.
Levy, as fine a technician as every Lieder pianist must be, is no run-of-the-mill pianist. He takes chances. It’s a matter of insight into the inner workings of tempo and timbre.
He often reaches into the inner soul of a piece and comes up with refreshing results. An especially good example of this is the 3 CD set devoted to Grieg (ED 1049). It contains the 66 Lyric Pieces, plus the big, early Piano Sonata Op.7. I cannot say that I’ve ever heard them played more tellingly. First Levy obviously takes these pieces seriously. He plays expressively and with extreme tasteful use of style. The big Sonata, for instance, can easily sound vulgar if exaggerated even slightly. (Glen Gould’s recordings, for instance, was one of his major disasters).
Grieg once commented on the many sets of the little Lyric Pieces, that, “They gather around me like gnats in a field”. But their surface simplicity hides major beauties – and occasionally – “Vanished Days”, from the Op.57 set – startling experimentation. (It almost sounds like early Bartòk). Levy plays these marvellously, avoiding both the salon element and the literal approach of pianists who go too far in the opposite direction. Levy finds the perfect balance between simplicity and emotional restraint in this outstanding set.
Schumann has always been a fascination for Levy. That empathy is not difficult to understand when one considers the mutual breath of interests shared between composer and pianist. Not surprisingly, several of the Schumann items are outstanding.
A special jewel for Edelweiss Emission is the dignity and sheer grandeur Levy brings to Volume 1 of his series (ED 1043). The highlight is Levy’s spectacular performance of the great Fantasia Op.17 – Schumann’s act of homage to Beethoven, which is really a grand sonata. Levy’s performance achieves symphonic stature, partly by refusing to turn the Fantasia into a mere showpiece. The disc also contains an elegant, delicately passionate account of the Impromptus on a Theme of Clara Wieck Op. 5 and Papillons Op. 2.
As if to give a full balance to his Schumann interests, Edelweiss also issued an outstanding collection of Levy playing four piano works of Clara (Wieck) Schumann (ED 1051). It contains Clara’s Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann Op.20; Sonata in G Minor, 3 Romances Op.11… and the utterly wonderful Piéces Fugitives Op.15. Clara was not only one of the great pianists of her time, but easily the finest female composer of the 19th Century. If you don’t know her music, you’re in for a handsome surprise.
This is, as you no doubt are aware, the Schubert bicentennial. But Levy’s poetic, inward-looking performances of Schubert’s massive Sonata in G Major D894, the Fantasy-Sonata in some editions, stands heads above other versions. And it’s coupled with equally moving versions of the four Impromptus D 899. Levy tends to emphasize the tragic aspects of the music much of the time, but lights up the scherzos with smiling charm. (The second Impromptu in E-flat Major is particularly impressive for that last quality).
If I were to pick one of the Edelweiss Emission releases featuring Levy with other musicians as the must-have disc, it would be the Schumann Lieder collection. It gives one a chance to sample Levy’s exceptional artistry at its finest while supporting Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair.
Holzmair is commonly spoken of as the likely successor to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s place as the major Lieder specialist of the late Century. He, and the sensational accompaniments of Levy make for a magnificent disc, brimming with intellect as well as high musicality. It’s a brilliant example of flawless unity of purpose.
Their programming is outstanding, offering a marvellous portrait of Schumann’s genius as a writer of songs. Thirteen songs on Heine open the survey… four miscellaneous songs, and the nine of Liederkreis Op.24. Those are followed by the six Lenau Lieder Op.90. Those are wonderful, but some of Schumann’s finest inspirations were fostered by Emanuel Geibel.
The disc offers eight of those, which happen to include my own favourites among Schumann’s songs. There are the seventh and eighth of the Gypsy Songs Op.79, and the nearly unsingable Der Contrabandiste (“The Smuggler” – the song of a braggart), from the Op.74 set. How any duo can manage to get through Contrabandiste always amazes me.
Naturally there are many more things of merit among the series. But of those I had the opportunity to sample, these were the most remarkable. It all goes to prove that, contrary to cliché, one does not always have to rely only on the most famous companies and artists to find discs with a long shelf life.
By Heuwell Tircuit (excerpts)
(In Tune, Japan)