Icon: Josef Lhevinne

Stephen Cera
Monday, February 12, 2024

Stephen Cera celebrates this great pianist of the era of Russian Romanticism, taking his relatively few recordings and exploring them to reveal what makes his playing so special

Josef Lhevinne (Tully Potter Collection)
Josef Lhevinne (Tully Potter Collection)

A legendary virtuoso whose recordings are spoken of with awe by pianists, Josef Lhevinne (1874-1944) lived during a vintage era of Russian Romanticism. At the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninov and Scriabin were his classmates – and all three received a gold medal upon graduation. When Scriabin was 20, according to the contemporary St Petersburg critic Alexander Ossovsky, he ‘got it into his head to have a piano competition with his fellow student Lhevinne, who had a phenomenal … technical piano gift. Practising for the duel, Scriabin severely strained his right hand doing Balakirev’s Islamey and Mozart/Liszt’s Don Giovanni.’

Although Lhevinne lived in the US from 1919 onwards, his official solo recorded output is quite limited and fills just one CD. It mainly consists of shorter solo works by Schumann, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky; these and other recorded performances have ensured his reputation. Marston has issued his 1942 New York broadcast performance of Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet with members of the Perolé Quartet, and the second and third movements of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 from a 1933 studio broadcast with the NBC Concert Orchestra. Apart from these, his output does not include any of the large-scale works for which he was praised, such as Brahms’s Paganini Variations, or Schumann’s Carnaval and Études symphoniques, nor any complete concerto.

In Chopin’s Op 10 No 11, he rolls each chord with perfect evenness, sensitively delivers the internal melodies, shapes the piece on a larger scale than do most pianists

The Tchaikovsky connection is particularly interesting. As a young piano student, I myself participated in masterclasses given by Rosina Lhevinne, Josef’s widow, in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. I recall my astonishment when she told us that her husband had known Tchaikovsky. In fact, a rarely heard Tchaikovsky piece, the Trepak from Op 72, appeared on his first recording, made in 1920. Lhevinne had met the composer in Moscow, and had played his First Piano Concerto to him. In 1893, Tchaikovsky showed the pianist the manuscript of his recently completed 18 Pieces, Op 72, and asked him to learn three of them while he was away on a trip to St Petersburg, then play them for him on his return. Lhevinne promised to do so, but the composer never returned from St Petersburg (where he died in November that year). Apparently, a copy of the title page of the Op 72 set survives bearing the inscription ‘To Josef Lhevinne, a talent’ and signed ‘P. Tchaikovsky, 22 September 1893, Moscow’.

In that work, as in each of his recorded performances, Lhevinne recreates the music effortlessly, with a warmly singing tone, and a panoply of colours. The Chopin études are also ideally suited to these qualities. The Étude in E flat, Op 10 No 11, is built entirely from chords that need to be ‘rolled’ because they’re too wide for the hand to reach all the notes at once. Within these chords are internal melodies that can be highlighted. Lhevinne rolls each chord with perfect evenness, sensitively delivers the internal melodies, and shapes the piece on a larger scale than do most pianists.

The treacherous Étude in G sharp minor, Op 25 No 6, provides quite a test for any pianist, with chromatic scales and trills doubled in thirds, mostly in the right hand. These call for intricate fingerings and finger independence, strength, facility and coordination. While the right hand rattles off the cascades of thirds, the left hand supplies the crucial melodic and harmonic framework. Lhevinne meets the challenges with characteristic ease, projecting an elegant line with flawless control amid a vast range of dynamics. Another of his specialities was the Étude in B minor, Op 25 No 10, featuring relentless cascades of octaves in both hands. Here he sustains and shapes the music at a remarkable velocity. In Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise in A flat, Op 53, his octaves in the middle section generate excitement through speed, fluency and rhythmic rigour, and he dispatches the work in a swift six minutes.

As to the remaining items, Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s song Frühlingsnacht showcases the pianist’s subtle voicing, gradations of colour and shimmering tremolos, while Schumann’s treacherous Toccata, Op 7, commands attention through Lhevinne’s nonchalant delivery, including in the rapid right-hand staccato octaves. Perhaps most astounding of all is the pianist’s first recording for RCA, his fabled 1928 account of Schulz-Evler’s arabesques on Johann Strauss II’s The Beautiful Blue Danube – a locus classicus of transcendental pianism. Lhevinne elicits a sumptuous tone in fortissimo passages as his hands bound all over the keyboard in the lilting waltz rhythm.

Lhevinne’s widow outlived him by some 32 years, dying in Los Angeles in 1976 aged 96. My teacher at the University of Southern California, Lillian Steuber, had herself studied with Lhevinne (his wife used to say that Steuber was one of Mr Lhevinne’s favourites). Steuber spoke of her teacher as an essentially modest and retiring musician, despite his prodigious gifts.

Essential recording

‘The Complete Josef Lhevinne’

Josef and Rosina Lhevinne pfs


In addition to all his commercial recordings, including Mozart and Debussy performed with Rosina Lhevinne, this set (recorded 1920-42) offers Brahms’s Piano Quartet No 1 with the Perolé Quartet and other non-commercial recordings from broadcasts.

Defining moments

• 1898 – Marries another outstanding pianist

Weds Rosina Bessie, another Moscow Conservatory gold medalist; she helps to guide his career. As Rosina Lhevinne, she becomes one of the great piano pedagogues of her time, principally at the Juilliard School in New York, teaching such famous Americans as Van Cliburn, James Levine, Garrick Ohlsson and John Browning

• 1903 – Important European debuts

Debuts in Vienna and London. Returns to London in 1912, performing three concertos in one concert with the LSO: Liszt No 1, Beethoven No 5 (Emperor) and Tchaikovsky No 1. After a later recital at London’s Grotrian Hall (1928), a critic writes, ‘His finger work is a hardly credible miracle, combining, as it does, reticence, lightness, enormous power, and swiftness of repetition’

• 1906 – Carnegie Hall debut

January 27: appears with the Russian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by his former piano teacher Vasily Safonov. Performs Rubinstein’s Concerto No 5 and receives enthusiastic reviews

• 1907 – Moves to Berlin

He and his wife settle in Berlin, where he bases his performing and teaching career before settling in the US. They are interned during the First World War because they are Russian

• 1919 – Moves to New York

He is invited to join the staff of the newly formed Juilliard Graduate School of music in New York. Both he and his wife teach there from 1924 and continue to perform

• 1924 – Book published

He publishes a short book entitled Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, which is reissued in 1972 with a foreword by Rosina. It remains a valuable guide for piano students

This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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