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Oscar Levant The Fabled Pianist’s Complete Recordings

Oscar Levant The Fabled Pianist’s Complete Recordings

At the height of his popularity, Oscar Levant was the highest-paid concert artist in America. He outdrew Horowitz and Rubinstein, with whom he shared the distinction – rare among classical pianists – of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He performed under conductors including Arturo Toscanini, Sir Thomas Beecham, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Fritz Reiner and Eugene Ormandy, and was the definitive interpreter of his friend George Gershwin. Levant’s 1945 recording of Rhapsody in Blue with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra topped the Billboard classical chart and remained one of Columbia Records’ best-selling albums for a decade. That classic interpretation and all his other recordings for the label, spanning the years 1941 to 1958, have now been collected in a new Sony Classical 8-disc box set. The vast majority of them are appearing for the first time ever on CD, in a 10″ x 10″ fully illustrated 124-page hardcover book with an essay by “the Ambassador of the Great American Songbook”, singer and Gershwin/Levant scholar Michael Feinstein. The book contains previously unseen photographs and images of facsimile documents and covers by Alex Steinweiss from Feinstein’s personal collection as well as documents from the Columbia/Sony Music Archives. The edition sees the first ever release of Levant’s own composition Blue Plate Special, which only exists in his 1947 recording and would otherwise have been lost forever. It reflects his compositional style and musical eccentricity at its best. The other world premiere is Levant’s recording of Bach’s Partita No. 1, the only example of him playing Bach. According to his daughter Lorna, the Partita was a piece Levant loved and played often at home.

Levant’s Columbia recordings, on which his fame as a pianist has always been based, began with Gershwin, as they do in this new Sony complete collection. From 1942 there are the Concerto in F with André Kostelanetz conducting the New York Philharmonic along with the Three Preludes. Writing about these performances, Gramophone perfectly captured the essence of their supremacy over all subsequent recordings of the works: “This is how to play Gershwin. It’s a tour de force … Levant is an essential link with Gershwin’s world where everything flows with a joyful ease and playful spontaneity.” That applies as well to the 1945 Rhapsody in Blue with Ormandy, which is also here, of course, together with the famous 1949 recordings of the Second Rhapsody and “I Got Rhythm” Variations with Morton Gould and his Orchestra.

But there’s much more than Gershwin in this 8-CD Oscar Levant set. Dating from 1947, his Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto is “both commanding and seriously playful, Levant never sublimating the work’s more skittish aspects. He and Ormandy work well together and the Philadelphia Orchestra provides its accustomed lavish tonal lustre”, while their Grieg Concerto “is rather more personalised in terms of phrasing and rubati” (MusicWeb International). In Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto from 1950 with Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic, “Levant’s digital brilliance is complemented by some very lustrous orchestral sonorities” (Gramophone). In Anton Rubinstein’s Fourth Concerto from 1952, again with Mitropoulos in New York, Levant “plays with romantic richness and vibrant excitement whether in the lovely slow movement or the dynamic finale” (MusicWeb International).

Among the other CD premieres are Levant’s 1949 recording of Honegger’s charming Concertino with Reiner conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra as well as many solo performances from the 1940s and 50s of pieces by Beethoven (including the “Moonlight” Sonata), Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and Copland (selections from the ballet Billy the Kid, arranged for piano by Lukas Foss). There is also a track of Levant playing his own music, a jazzy, almost manic little piece called Blue Plate Special, recorded in 1947.

Another rarity is taken from Warners’ 1946 movie Humoresque, one of the few films centered around classical music. Franz Waxman received an Oscar nomination for his original score and arrangements. The young violinist hero is portrayed by John Garfield, his wealthy older lover by Joan Crawford, his confidant and pianist by Oscar Levant, and his violin playing by Isaac Stern. The movie climaxes with one of the glories of 40s cinematic kitsch. As she listens to the strains of Wagner’s Liebestod being played by the Garfield character on the radio, the distraught Crawford character drowns herself in the Pacific. On the soundtrack, it is Stern and Levant who are revelling in Waxman’s irresistibly schmaltzy Wagner arrangement for violin, piano and orchestra. No Oscar Levant set would be complete without it.

“In some situations I was difficult, in odd moments impossible, in rare moments loathsome, but at my best unapproachably great.” Music lovers now have an unprecedented opportunity to judge Oscar Levant’s self-adulating, self-abasing appraisal for themselves.

Oscar Levant on Jack Paar

Born in Pittsburgh in 1906 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Oscar Levant left high school at the age of 15 to study in New York with the Paderewski disciple Sigismund Stojowski, paying for his lessons by playing in dance bands and roadhouses. In 1927 he made the first recording of Rhapsody in Blue after Gershwin’s own – in a 15-minute session with no rehearsal. It became a nationwide hit. In 1930, he got to know Gershwin and his brother Ira. Two years later – at Gershwin’s request – he made his solo piano debut playing the Concerto in F in New York’s Lewisohn Stadium before a capacity audience of 17,000. Around the same time, he and the composer played a two-piano arrangement of the Second Rhapsody for Toscanini. After Gershwin’s tragic death in 1937 at the age of 38, he played the Concerto in F at his memorial concert in the Hollywood Bowl.

Levant held sway for the next two decades as the leading interpreter of Gershwin’s piano music. In 1945, he appeared as himself in Warner Brothers’ Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue, stealing the show, according to critics. (He once quipped: “Strip away the phoney tinsel of Hollywood and you find the real tinsel underneath.”) His most famous role was as Gene Kelly’s expatriate friend Adam in the 1951 Oscar-winning film An American in Paris, in which Levant conducted and played all the instruments in a fantasy version of the Gershwin Concerto. He was always cast as the wise-cracking friend, never the lead: “If it’s a B-picture, I play the piano,” he joked. “If it’s an A-picture, I move the piano.”

Another of the polymath Levant’s talents was composition. After studying for three years with Arnold Schoenberg, his first String Quartet was performed in 1937 by the Kolisch Quartet. He wrote a Dirge dedicated to Gershwin’s memory. Yet Levant’s best-known piece nowadays is the 1934 hit song Blame It On My Youth, recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., André Previn and, more recently, Keith Jarrett (twice), Brad Mehldau, Aaron Neville, Barry Manilow and Jamie Cullum. His efforts as a composer were overshadowed by his fame as a pianist.

Levant’s wit (“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue”) and his precarious mental health (“There is a thin line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line”) became legendary: through his best-selling books The Memoirs of an Amnesiac, A Smattering of Ignorance and The Unimportance of Being Oscar as well on radio and television. With his wife June, he briefly hosted his own TV show in Los Angeles, where he finally settled.

In 1949, he finally made his Carnegie Hall debut, playing Gershwin and other composers with Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic. “His singing tone is melting and beautiful … he could go far as a virtuoso,” wrote Olin Downes, the renowned New York Times music critic. 



Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F major (André Kostelanetz)

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (Eugene Ormandy)

Gershwin: Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (Morton Gould)

Gershwin: I Got Rhythm – Variations for Piano and Orchestra (Morton Gould)


Gershwin: Preludes

Debussy: Les Collines d’Anacapri from Préludes, Book I

Debussy: Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes

Zhelobinsky: Études op. 19

Shostakovich: Prelude in A minor op. 34/2

Shostakovich: Polka from The Age of Gold Suite op. 22a

Ravel: Mouvement de menuet from Sonatine M 40

Levant: Con ritmo from Sonatina

Falla: Fire Dance from El amor brujo

Lecuona: Malagueña from Andalucia

Poulenc: Pastourelle from L’Eventail de Jeane

Debussy: Golliwog’s Cakewalk from Children’s Corner Suite

Debussy: La Fille aux cheveux de lin from Préludes, Book I

Debussy: Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque

Poulenc: Mouvements perpetuels Nos. 1–3

Falla: Miller’s Dance from The Three-Cornered Hat

Albéniz: Tango in D major op. 165/2

J. S. Bach, arr. Samuels: Partita No. 1 in B-flat major BWV 825 (previously unreleased)


Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor “Moonlight” op. 27/2

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 20 in G major op. 49/2: Il tempo di menuetto

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor “Pathetique” op. 13: Adagio cantabile

Wagner, arr. Waxman: Tristan und Isolde for Violin, Piano and Orchestra

Brahms: Waltz No. 15 in A-flat major op. 39

Schumann: Träumerei from Kinderszenen op. 15

Brahms: Intermezzo in A major op. 118/2

Rachmaninoff: Prelude in D minor op. 23/3

Rachmaninoff: Prelude In E-flat major op. 23/6

Rachmaninoff: Prelude in G major op. 32/5

Khachaturian: Sabre Dance from Gayaneh (Bring)

Khachaturian: Lullaby from Gayaneh (Bring)

Copland, arr. Foss: Billy the Kid

Levant: Blue Plate Special (previously unreleased)


Chopin: Etude in G-flat major “Black Key Etude” op. 10/5

Chopin: Etude in C minor “Revolutionary” op. 10/12

Chopin: Etude in E major op. 10/3

Chopin: Nocturne in E-flat major op. 9/2

Chopin: Nocturne in F-sharp major op. 15/2

Chopin: Berceuse in D-flat major op. 57

Chopin: Polonaise No. 3 in A major “Military” op. 40/1

Chopin: Waltz in G-flat major op. 70/1

Chopin: Etude in C-sharp minor op. 10/4

Chopin: Waltz in C-sharp minor op. 64/2

Debussy: Reflets dans l’eau from Images, Set I

Debussy: La Soirée dans Grenade from Estampes

Debussy: General Lavine from Préludes, Book II

Debussy: Minstrels from Préludes, Book I

Debussy: La Cathédrale engloutie from Préludes, Book I

Debussy: Serenade of the Doll from Children’s Corner

Debussy: The Little Shepherd from Children’s Corner

Debussy: La plus que lente

Debussy: Deux Arabesques

DISC 5                  

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor op. 23 (Ormandy)

Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor op. 16 (Kurtz)

Honegger: Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (Reiner)


Khachaturian: Piano Concerto in D-flat major op. 38 (Mitropoulos)

Rubinstein: Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor op. 70 (Mitropoulos)


Liszt: Sonetto 104 del Petrarca S 161/5

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 in C-sharp minor

Liszt: Valse oubliée No. 1 in F-sharp minor

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10 in E major

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 4 in E-flat major

Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A minor

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte

Ravel: Forlane & Minuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin

Mompou: Scenes of Childhood


Chopin: Waltz in C-sharp minor op. 64/2

Chopin: Mazurka in A minor op. 17/4

Chopin: Mazurka in B-flat minor op. 24/4

Chopin: Mazurka in C-sharp minor op. 63/3

Chopin: Mazurka in A minor op. 67/4

Chopin: Etude in C minor “Revolutionary” op. 10/12

Debussy: Minstrels from Préludes, Book I

Debussy: General Lavine from Préludes, Book II

Debussy: Jardins sous la pluie from Estampes

Debussy: Serenade of the Doll from Children’s Corner

Ravel: Sonatine M 40

Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini: Var. 18

Shostakovich: The Age of Gold – Suite, Pp. 22a: Polka

Scott: Lotus Land

Prokofiev: Visions fugitives op. 22: Nos. 1, 3, 6


Suzanna, co-owns and publishes the newspaper Times Square Chronicles or T2C. At one point a working actress, she has performed in numerous productions in film, TV, cabaret and theatre. She has performed at The New Orleans Jazz festival, The United Nations and Carnegie Hall. Currently she has a screenplay in the works, which she developed with her mentor and friend the late Arthur Herzog. She was the Broadway Informer on the all access cable TV Show “The New Yorkers,” soon to be “The Tourist Channel.” email:

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