Maria Lettberg interprets Levina’s Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2

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COMPOSERS: Levina
LABELS: Capriccio
ALBUM TITLE: Zara Levina
WORKS: Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2; String Quartet No. 8 (arr. Giltburg); String Quartet No. 2 – Waltz (arr. Giltburg)
PERFORMER: Maria Lettberg (piano); Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Ariane Matiakh
CATALOGUE NO: C5269

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File this under ‘worthwhile discoveries’. Zara Levina, born in Ukraine in 1906, was best known in her lifetime for her songs and children’s music. But she also wrote two bold piano concertos, here given vivid performances by Swedish pianist Maria Lettberg and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra – currently the only available recording of the Second Concerto and, it seems, the recorded premiere of the First.

Levina’s music may have faded in the public memory, but these two works reveal a colourful and lively composer who knew how to move and entertain her audience. Levina studied composition with Glière and Myaskovsky, and piano with Vladimir Horowitz’s teacher Felix Blumenfeld, but the First Piano Concerto of 1942 will have you thinking ‘Rachmaninov’ – and you can tell that Levina was a pianist. This is music that ticks all the late-Romantic Russian virtuoso boxes: sweeping tunes, kaleidoscopic orchestral colours, moments of lyrical reflection, passages of demanding chordal piano writing. And it’s capped off with a jaunty, dancing finale that ends in triumphant peals, all performed with intoxicating energy by the Berlin musicians.

The one-movement Second Concerto dates from a year before Levina’s death in 1976, and makes a matching stylistic jump forward from the First Concerto. By then she was grappling with chronic heart disease and although she didn’t live to hear this piece’s premiere, she believed it to be her best work. If the biography brings to mind a Mahlerian awareness of one’s fate, the music is a vibrant merry-go-round of a whole host of other influences: Shostakovich, Prokofiev, a Stravinsky-esqe trumpet, a Ravel-like waltz. Yet it’s all channelled into Levina’s distinctive voice. This is a really enjoyable recording, in excellent sound.

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Rebecca Franks