Notes and Editorial Reviews
After the great success and Grammy nominated album of Piano Concertos by Russian composer Zara Levina, this recording focuses now on different types of chamber music compositions by the same composer. Again, the Riga-born pianist Maria Lettberg plays the leading part on this recording and shows the high creativity of the unjustified forgotten composer. Zara Alexandrovna Levina, born 1906 in Alexandrovsk (Ukraine), witnessed two world wars, the Revolution as well as the collapse and totalitarian reconstruction of her homeland. She was under the constant ideological pressure of the existentially threatening state censorship, which was particularly exerted by the notorious RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) in the 1920s and 1930s, driving her to the brink of a creative and health disaster. However, Zara Levina was able to retain her own and unmistakable voice in her music. She died in Moscow on 1976 as a respected and much-performed composer beloved of musicians such as David Oistrakh, Maria Grinberg, Victor Knuschewitzki and the public alike.
Zara Levina’s Piano Concertos made something of an impression when Capriccio brought out its disc in which Maria Lettberg featured prominently, as she does in this latest disc devoted to Levina’s music. Here the focus turns to instrumental and chamber music.
There are two piano sonatas. The first dates from 1925 when she was 19 and is an exercise in ultra-compression; it’s the size of a Scarlatti sonata at rather less than six minutes in length. As is so evident in her concertos she was profoundly influenced by Rachmaninov, and the intensity of the chording reinforces the fact in this taut, descriptive work. Over a quarter of a century later she wrote her second sonata, cast in three conventionally-sized movements. There’s almost childlike innocence in its opening Allegretto, a pellucid sense of generosity too, though the central Andante sees the music deepen in expression that encourages a fiery and passionate Allegro finale. The work progresses from sweetness to purposeful drama by a process of clarification of expressive intensity. Maria Lettberg is the perfect exponent.
In 1928 she wrote a Poème for viola and piano, a sliver of a piece shorter even than the First Piano Sonata. Nevertheless, it manages to convey a rich and refined elegance and allows the viola a brief central panel to muse rhapsodically. The Violin Sonata, a work that predates the Second Piano Sonata by a year, is a piece that combines attractive themes with pellucid writing. The solemn nobility of the central slow movement also sports a beautiful lyric section that swings deliciously before returning to the melancholic tread of the opening paragraphs. The finale, meanwhile, has puckish Prokofiev-like leanings and proves another opportunity for enlivening variation of mood and tone from Levina.
The Three Piano Pieces of 1940—a Wiegenlied, Dance and Toccata—exude light spirits. The first is played with a rich sentiment that almost defeats the chilly acoustic, the second is fulsome and energetic, and the third is a darting, exciting affair with some unusual Iberian-flamenco evocations. The Fantasy on Bashkirian Themes is another six-minute piece, this time for violin and piano dating from 1942. The dancing airs are delicious; there are quirky folkloric elements at work, too, and plenty of virtuosic flourishes for the fiddle. Interesting too, that those Bashkirian themes sound to my ears very like Gershwin and Robert Russell Bennett. Despite the 1943 date the Canzonetta for cello is deft and relaxed. This leaves the Hebrew Rhapsody, a work that occupied her for 25 years, on and off. It was finally completed shortly before her death but written for two hands. Here we hear a four-hand arrangement made by Katia Tchemberdji who joins Lettberg for this 11-minute piece. The music moves, perhaps expectedly given its rhapsodic and ethnic nature, from exuberance to melancholia to fiery drive. It’s really only in this work that Jewish elements are uppermost in her music. There’s no real clue as to why a four-hand version was played instead of the original—perhaps the added density may have something to do with it.
It’s the arranger who has written the pertinent booklet notes. All the performers—I’ve only mentioned Lettberg by name as she appears so often—are excellent and the recordings are, as noted, just a little chilly but very clear. Levina’s music continues to impress. In addition to studio recordings I can’t help wondering what, if anything, has survived in radio archives.
– MusicWeb International (Jonathan Woolf)