Levant was a friend and well know interpreter of George Gershwin’s, a classically trained piano virtuoso, raconteur and wit, and a clinically diagnosed obsessive compulsive. Levant covered his tracks well with a colorfully expressed personality and a devastating sense of humor. You can see all of this on display in his rambling introduction and interaction with his wife and Astaire, who sits patiently waiting for Levant to focus. Once he does, he and Astaire play what sounds like an off the cuff version of Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” including a false start.
Fred Astaire, with his seemingly effortless artistry, shows once again why he is so highly regarded as a singer, and one of the finest interpreters of “The Great American songbook". In fact, many of the greatest composers of America's greatest period of musical creativity wrote specifically for Astaire. Watching the man perform here indicates why. There are no dramatic flourishes, just a straight to the heart of it, quiet statement of the lyric and melody, with a master’s gift for interpretation and phrasing. Levant likewise, plays with authority, almost overstating the case, but, quickly reins it in, keeping pace with Astaire’s more subtle reading.
The film clip could use a good digital cleanup, but, who can complain when two of the 20th centuries historic musical figures are caught for posterity, talking, playing, and reminiscing about Irving Berlin’s upcoming birthday and music. It’s about as close as any of us will ever get to experiencing what it must have been like at a dinner party with some very talented guests in the 1920's or early 1930's when they were just starting out. George and Ira, Oscar Levant, a young Fred and Estelle Astaire, maybe Irving Berlin or Cole Porter sharing stories and jamming on that new music called jazz.
By the time of this performance, both were aging veterans whose public careers were on the wane. Their talent, however, was undiminished—and if anything was all the richer. Suggesting that youth is a fine thing, but, age can bring a refinement of craft that can only come with time and talent. The performance here makes it clear that Fred and Oscar had plenty of both.