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Zara LEVINA (1906-1976)
Piano Concerto No.1 (1942) [36:48]
Piano Concerto No.2 (1975) [19:13]
Maria Lettberg (piano)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Ariane Matiakh
rec. Berlin RBB Saal 1, 27-30 April 2016
CAPRICCIO C5269 [56:01]

I very much doubt that the name of Zara Levina will ring any bells with the majority of readers; I have certainly never come across her before. Sadly, because on the strength of these concertos I should have done and it's a crying shame that she is not better known. It is to be hoped that this release may kick-start something that helps bring that about. This is one of those discs that have you reaching for the repeat button on your CD player no sooner than it is finished.

From the very first notes of the first piano concerto you know you are going to enjoy the music; it is insistent and powerful and brings Rachmaninov immediately to mind with its passionately declared main theme. At the same time, there are overtones of Prokofiev since there are ‘rougher’ and spikier rhythms than are found in the more overtly romantic works of Rachmaninov. It was interesting and hardly surprising to read that her two principal teachers of composition were Reinhold Gliere and Nikolai Myaskovsky, both of whose music were chock full of powerful themes. The second theme has a whiff of the orient about it which was a feature found in many works by Soviet composers at the time. Zara Levina’s Jewish heritage might account for that, but in any event it lends some extremely pleasing and satisfying elements to the work and creates a happy atmosphere overall. After such a spirited opening movement, the slow second movement brings calm and a feeling of relaxation to the fore though there is just a tinge of melancholy. The final movement is a veritable jolly romp, shot through with humour and mercurial passion which are infectious, keeping a smile on the listener’s face throughout its ten-minute length. It is a total mystery why we don’t hear this concerto often as it contains all the elements one could want from such a work: big sounds, temperamental moments, knockabout humour, gorgeously lush orchestral writing, and hints of melancholy and of the orient. It gives the soloist plenty to do, calling for powerful pianism that equals any of the piano concerto warhorses. Let a plea go out from here to concert programmers: try something different and educate the audience with some rarely heard but exciting works!

The second piano concerto was Zara Levina’s final work, written within months of her death in 1976 from chronic heart disease. She considered it was her best composition. The similarities with Prokofiev’s writing for piano are strong in the opening minutes. There are some wonderfully exciting passages and the orchestral writing is rich, often dense but always engaging, while there is delicacy in the piano at those times when it is not required to make bold and assertive statements. These contrasts keep the interest throughout. Both these piano concertos have everything going for them and both should gain a devoted following with these performances from Maria Lettberg, whose passionate playing is equally matched by her subtle treatment of the gentler passages. A better advocate for these works one could not imagine, while the orchestra gives her the most complementary backing, a combination which should help bring these piano concertos from their undeserved obscurity into their highly warranted limelight. It is a long time since these concertos were available on CD and what a welcome addition they are to the catalogue. It is also gratifying that it is another female conductor at the helm of the orchestra; Ariane Matiakh performs a great service to these works and her handling of the orchestra shows both respect and admiration for the music, which is thoroughly deserved. You can hear her interviewed on a YouTube video from record company Capriccio in which she declares that she will do her best to programme these concertos in her concerts, so bravo to that! Maria Lettberg is also interviewed and she describes her passion for the music too, as well as her surprise and delight on discovering them. We can expect her to ensure they are widely played, too, I’m sure. Zara Levina’s granddaughter and CD note writer Katia Tchemberdji is another interviewee, who describes the humanity that sprang from her grandmother both in her talks with her as well as in her music. This is a disc that must be heard.

Steve Arloff
Previous review: Rob Barnett



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