Notes and Editorial Reviews
Le Festin d’Esope.
Raymond Lewenthal (pn)
ÉLAN 82276 (65:05)
Those who discover or recover a forgotten composer of great originality and genius are often honored, but
seldom among those who are able to proselytize, perform, record, and annotate the event themselves. Yet at one pianist’s time of greatest angst and despair, the Muse of Music reached down, touched Raymond Lewenthal on the shoulder, and said, “Thou shalt be a prophet with some honor.”
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer man or a more talented one. Lewenthal, many forget, was the one American pianist who was giving another young buck, William Kapell, a run for his money in the late 1940s. Dmitri Mitropoulos invited him to perform a Prokofiev concerto that Mitropoulos himself normally conducted from the keyboard in 1948; the performance was a sensation, but the very year that Kapell died in a plane crash, 1953, Lewenthal was mugged and severely beaten late at night in Central Park. His attackers broke both of his hands
his arms. Recovering slowly in the hospital, Lewenthal was told he would never play the piano again. He believed it, yet for some reason went to France to get away from it all. A family friend contacted Alfred Cortot and asked him to please help encourage Lewenthal and raise his spirits. Cortot did so, and in the process dangled a shiny new toy in front of him: the technically fiendish, musically eccentric world of Charles-Valentin Alkan. Upon his return to America in 1963, Lewenthal appeared on a New York radio station and extolled the virtues of Alkan. Shortly thereafter, he was invited by Schirmer to prepare an edition of Alkan’s music for publication. The advance money he received for this allowed him to arrange a public concert of Alkan’s music, which drew the attention of RCA Victor. The result was the series of recordings on this CD, which won the pianist two Grammy nominations as well as a medal from France for promoting the composer’s music.
The downsides, of course, were that Alkan’s music was
thorny to both play and listen to, and that Lewenthal had to hit upon a gimmick to attract audiences. His solution, inspired by the then-popular TV soap opera
was to give his concerts in full Gothic regalia: 19th-century white ties and shirt fronts, Dracula capes, and ominous organ music for his entrance, whereupon both he and his page-turner came up the center aisle to the stage carrying black or blood-red candles. The gimmicks kept me from going to the concerts, but not from buying the records. After two albums on RCA, Lewenthal moved to Columbia in 1971, but alas, his Columbia output has remained locked away in the vaults.
Here we have Lewenthal in all his glory, including his highly informative, entertaining, and exhausting liner notes, published by RCA as a special insert to the LP. Despite my admiring the Alkan recordings of Bernard Ringeissen and Marc-André Hamelin, no one has captured the mad, swirling essence of Alkan as well as Lewenthal. Back around 1985, a few years before he died, I happened to attend a performance of the Alkan Cello Sonata, and afterwards commended the artists for their performance. I happened to mention that I lived in northern New Jersey at the time when Lewenthal was giving his concerts. Immediately, the musicians’ ears pricked up. “Raymond Lewenthal!” they said, almost with breathless awe. “Did you get to
him?” Alas, I did not. “What a pity,” the pianist said. “Those concerts were legendary. Pianist friends of mine have told me that as good as the records were, what Lewenthal did on the concert hall almost beggared description.”
Maybe so, but the RCA records are still pretty damn good. Oh, yes … the Liszt, etc.-composed
is a 20-minute concert arrangement of variations on Bellini’s “Suoni la tromba” from
Lewenthal serves it up as if it were the world premiere of the “Appassionata” Sonata. You’ll love it.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Hexameron, S 392 by Franz Liszt
Raymond Lewenthal (Piano)
Written: 1837; Paris, France
Date of Recording: 1966
Length: 19 Minutes 23 Secs.
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