Maria Lettberg Plays Levina


LEVINA: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. Poem.4 Violin Sonata No. 2.1 3 Klavierstücke. Phantasie nach baskirischen Themen (Fantasy on Bashkirian Themes).1 Kanzonetta.2 Hebrew Rhapsody3 / Maria Lettberg, pno; 1Yury Revich, vln; 2Ringela Riemke, cel; 3Katia Tchemberdj, pno; 4Gernot Adrion, vla / Capriccio C5356

Zara Levina (1906-1976) was a Soviet-era pianist-composer. She studied at the Odessa Conservatory, graduating in 1932, and admired a mixture of Russian composers, particularly Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Prokofiev, in addition to Beethoven and Schumann. Her music, then, is in the late Romantic vein with a few touches of Prokofiev thrown in for color.

I found her music to be a sort of second-tier Medtner, another late-Romantic Russian composer. It is solidly written, with strong emotional undercurrents running through it and a few touches of Prokofiev-like harmony for color. Like Medtner, she had a strong sense of construction, and despite the Romantic bias her music is not overly tuneful or sentimental like Rachmaninov. The more sentimental Poem for viola and piano has a darkish quality in the music that lifts it above the norm. As much as I liked the brief but compact and dramatic first Piano Sonata, however it was the Violin Sonata No. 2 that grabbed my attention, particularly her use of lyrical themes for the dominant instrument that avoided the pop-music-like sensibility that Joe Stalin liked in music. In both sonatas, one hears Levina reaching for a different means of expression. I think the fact that 27 years separate the two (the Piano Sonata is a very early work from 1925, when she was only 19 years old, whereas the Violin Sonata comes from 1952) shows how much more the mature Prokofiev came to influence her work—yet the slow middle movement still retains some traces of Rachmaninov in its melodic theme and minor-key piano underpinning. It could almost pass for one of Rachmaninov’s excellent songs. At the 1:38 mark in the second movement, there is a surprisingly strong solo piano passage that repeats itself in a slightly changed form several bars later. Violinist Yury Revich has exactly the right type of bright, Russian violin sound for this music. The third movement returns to a Prokofiev vein, a chirpy dance-like tune that both violinist and pianist revel in.

By contrast with the above, the 3 Klavierstücke are not much more than folderol, in one ear and out the other: mid-Sunday morning brunch music for the upper clahsses except for the last one, a Toccata. Yet the Fantasy on Bashkirian Themes is a fine piece, solidly written, almost in an Enescu vein. The Canzonetta, again, is just a pleasant salon piece without much meat on its sparse bones.

Zara Levina

Zara Levina

Throughout this recital, the playing of pianist Maria Lettberg is consistently excellent, not only technically (hell, they can all play zip-a-de-doo-dah nowadays) but, more importantly, in expression, capturing the feeling and essence of each piece. Not a bar goes by that one does not pay attention to what Lettberg is doing and admire her for her total commitment to these scores. As in the case of so many Soviet-era composers, Levina was obviously forced to occasionally abandon her high-minded principles and write sentimental slop for her King Commie leaders—the second Piano Sonata, far less interesting than the first, is a prime example—and this is a pity, but under the surface beat the heart of an artist, and thus some of this music is really very good.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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