Oscar Levant was a man of many highly-developed talents, but his greatest achievement is arguably his recording of Gershwin’s music.
In my early teens I was the fortunate recipient of a long-playing record featuring Oscar Levant performing George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, his Concerto for Piano in F Major, and several shorter pieces by the same composer. I was immediately thrilled with the playing (I already loved the music) and intrigued with the background information I was given, along with that remarkable gift, concerning the close friendship that Levant and Gershwin shared. Later, when I became better able to appreciate the significance of that recording, I wanted to ask the person who had given it to me how such a gem had been chosen — but that, unfortunately, was no longer possible. I was left to marvel and eventually to replace the cherished vinyl with a much less romantic but also less fragile compact disk.
Oscar Levant called himself “a study of a man in chaos in search of frenzy”
The above quotation was no doubt only partly in jest; Oscar Levant was known for turning his wit on himself at least as often as he used it to astonishing effect on his surroundings and acquaintances, and he did lead a trying life. His acerbic writings, it is a shame to note, are very hard to come by, although Amazon.com does its part in keeping a few titles available. This side of Oscar Levant — the brilliant cynic who turned up in several movies (always playing a version of his true self) and was a highly desirable host and guest on television shows, where his biting humor could unfailingly be counted upon — only became known to me later on. It was the fabulous piano playing, even after I was in a position to take into account all his other achievements, that made me a life-long admirer. I did not believe — and still do not — that anyone had equaled or surpassed his interpretation of the Gershwin Rhapsody and Piano Concerto: the fluid runs, articulated so clearly yet so well-rounded; the melancholy, endlessly arched melodic lines; the rhythmic stretching, right up against the beat . No one has come close to this exceptional rendition except, of course, Oscar Levant’s great friend, Mr. Gershwin.