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‘A Rhapsody in Blue: The Extraordinary Life of Oscar Levant’ Review – WSJ

‘A Rhapsody in Blue: The Extraordinary Life of Oscar Levant’ Review – WSJ


‘A Rhapsody in Blue: The Extraordinary Life of Oscar Levant’ Review
The eight-CD set is an outstanding collection of epic showcases for classical keyboard and a celebration of the Gershwin canon.
Will Friedwald
Aug. 21, 2018 5:10 p.m. ET
Oscar Levant at the piano
Beats there a heart so dead that it doesn’t love George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”? This is one of those pinnacle achievements, a work that makes you feel good to be alive. Whose soul doesn’t soar at the sound of that remarkable opening, with its clarinet glissando? And even more so at the finale, with its fortissimo crashes, as Gershwin piles on the suspense and the drama with one great staccato burst of melodic energy after another? It’s hard to imagine any work of art—musical, visual, literary, theatrical, or even cinematic—that moves us and thrills us like this extraordinary piece of American music from 1924.
The closest thing this Gershwin classic has to a flaw is the middle; it simply can’t compete with the beginning or the ending. In the hands of most pianists, that middle section is merely a meandering placeholder, a respite between two colossal moments of musical brilliance. I personally prefer the first recording, a truncated 1924 performance with the composer himself and Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, because—at just nine minutes—it condenses the middle section. The only performance I’ve ever heard of the complete “Rhapsody” whose middle section justifies its existence is the brilliant 1945 recording by Oscar Levant, the highest-paid classical artist in America in the 1940s and 1950s.
Levant (1906-1972), whose recorded work is the subject of “A Rhapsody in Blue: The Extraordinary Life of Oscar Levant,” a new eight-CD boxed set from Sony Classical, impels the middle section with amazing force and feeling—his piano propelling the entire Philadelphia Orchestra the way that a great drummer drives a jazz band. Levant has all the technique and volume of an orchestra unto himself, and thus his pairing with conductor Eugene Ormandy often sounds like two full ensembles playing at once, both in cooperation and competition.
Making his work all the more remarkable, Oscar Levant wasn’t even best known as a musician. He was also a songwriter (whose best known number, “Blame It on My Youth,” was sung brilliantly by both Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole) as well as an actor and TV personality. No less than his contemporary Dorothy Parker, Levant with his hundreds of brief, quotable quips foreshadowed Twitter. And he was ahead of his more buttoned-up times, as well, in talking openly about his neuroses on national television during talk-show interviews in the 1950s and 1960s.
The new set contains 109 tracks recorded between 1941 and 1958, the last sessions in stereo, and was produced by Robert Russ.Michael Feinstein supplied a biographical essay and many of the dozens of rare illustrations and photographs for the 124-page hardcover book that housesthe whole package. Levant is best remembered for his interpretations of the Gershwin canon, and the performances here of the “Piano Concerto in F Major,” “Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra,” the “‘I Got Rhythm’ Variations,” and the three remarkable “Preludes” can all be considered definitive. (He also appeared as actor and performer in two classic Gershwin-centric movies, the “Rhapsody in Blue” biopic and “An American in Paris.”)
Yet well beyond the music of his close friend, this set is an outstanding collection of epic showcases for classical keyboard. The eight discs contain dozens of virtuoso pieces that would have been very familiar to mainstream listeners in the 1940s and 1950s, like de Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance,” Lecuona’s “Malagueña,” and the number that launched a thousand plate-spinners on “The Ed Sullivan Show”: Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance.” These works were ensured—as if by Lloyd’s of London—to generate a tumult whenever Levant played them, and he delivers them with maximum muscularity and irresistible, driving rhythm.
Still, Levant played in other styles as well. He renders the famous “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde” in a rather dramatic adaptation by film composer Franz Waxman that makes it sound like a vintage Hollywood romance, or, as is Levant himself were playing the leading man in the opera. He plays Brahms’s “Waltz No. 15 in A-Flat Major, Op. 39” and Schumann’s “Träumerei” with uncommon tenderness. He’s no less adept at interpreting the Impressionists than the Romantics: Here’s a “Clair de lune” (Debussy) for the ages and two Ravel masterworks, “Sonatine” and parts of “Le Tombeau de Couperin.” These works were extremely influential among superior jazz and pop orchestrators of the 1950s, like Nelson Riddle, who were especially inspired by his use of polyphony. 
Two works here, the Bach “Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major” and “Blue Plate Special,” are previously unreleased; the latter, by Levant himself, is particularly fascinating in the way it combines stride-like techniques, quixotically repetitive patterns and angular dissonances. In fact, they reveal nothing less than the same antic wit and humor as his talk-show appearances. As we hear on these discs, he channeled that energy into performances that changed the way we understand the classics. Levant famously said, “I don’t want to be known as a wag, I want to be known as a serious musician.” Any one of the performances on this set will leave the listener with no doubt as to what his most valuable legacy actually was.
—Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.

Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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