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Zara LEVINA (1906-1976)
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1925) [5:51]
Poème for viola and piano (1928) [3:29]
Violin Sonata (1952) [15:57]
Three Piano Pieces (Wiegenlied; Tanz; Toccata) (1940) [12:34]
Fantasy on Bashkirian Themes for violin and piano (1942) [5:59]
Canzonetta for cello and piano (1943) [5:00]
Piano Sonata No. 2 (1943) [15:14]
Hebrew Rhapsody for two piano (1930s-1975) [11:06]
Maria Lettberg (piano); Yury Revich (violin); Gernot Adrion (viola); Ringela Riemke (cello); Katia Tchemberdji (piano)
rec. 2018, Berlin
CAPRICCIO C5356 [75:10]

Zara Levina was born in Simferopol and died in Moscow. She studied piano in the Odessa Conservatory and graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1932, having studied piano and composition. She is reputed to have admired Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Beethoven and Schumann. Levina was married to the composer Nikolai Tchemberdzhi (1903–1948). Pianist Alexander Melnikov is her grandson.

My entrée to the world of this Soviet composer came as a result of another disc from Capriccio: Levina’s two piano concertos. Those two works were very well received here (review). Maria Lettberg is often at the forefront with less famed yet deserving repertoire. She continues the Levina story with her co-musicians in this amply filled disc.

Eight scores make for a well-packed CD but, as if to reassure the potential adventurer, Levina’s chamber works are pretty compact. Only the Violin Sonata and the Sonata No. 2 are in anything other than single shortish movements. We start with a very brief First Piano Sonata from 1925. Short it maybe in duration, but its mood projection is quite other. It possesses a songful simplicity and a deft gentleness and deploys these within strong romantic tendency. Three years later there came a short viola Poème. This too relies on a gentle and faintly exotic spirit, rather like Cyril Scott in the West. The three-movement Violin Sonata was recorded by David Oistrakh for Melodiya. It is to be found in the world of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto in the first movement - all rather fantastical and steely-sweet. Her teacher Myaskovsky can be discerned in the gently tolling andante. I have just been listening to Grigori Feigin in the Myaskovsky (Olympia OCD134 and Melodiya Australia MA3011). The mood resemblance is clear before a finale that romps and chatters

The Three Pieces for solo piano comprise a Wiegenlied that broods and lulls, a brooding in sun; a music-box graceful Tanz that recalls Medtner; and a fluttering, hunted and buzzing Toccata. The Fantasy on Bashkirian Themes swims in complex and troubled oily waters. The viola lends this very satisfying piece a dark tinge despite a Grainger-like Melody. The gracious Canzonetta again affirms the staying power of unassertive melodies. Also from the war years, the Piano Sonata No. 2 again leads the listener through the Allegretto’s music-box regularity with recurring fanfare of an idea. The Andante’s slow-ish confidences provide a launching point for an emergent nobility and for simple melodies that exude the faint odour of the Eastern rose gardens. The final Allegro is a platform for nobility and bells. The Hebrew Rhapsody is for piano four hands. It runs to 11 minutes, through which the music storms, dreams and experiences turbulence. Despite the title, the hebraic element is pretty understated - this is not Bloch or Prokofiev.

The sound is good and affirmative yet admitting gentleness. In that sense it is a good match for the musicians’ readings of this otherwise very rarely heard music. The CD essay is by Katia Tchemberdji and this is in German and English.

I should also mention that Levina’s Second Piano Concerto has been recorded on CD on Russian Disc (RD CD 111 382) where it is coupled with the 1938 symphony by Nina Makarova, the wife of Aram Khachaturyan.

I rather hope that Maria Lettberg will next assess and record the piano concertos of Nicolai Kapustin (there are at least six) and of Ivan Dzerzhinsky (there are two). For now, this is a most pleasing¸ fresh and substantial offering.

Rob Barnett
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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