The name of Zara Levina is not widely known, but this will soon change. The Swedish pianist Maria Lettberg recorded her two Piano Concertos together with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ariane Matiakh. Their spirited performance of Levina’s powerful music was nominated for the ‘Classical Instrumental Solo’ Gramophone Award 2018.
Zara Levina (1906-1976) was the daughter of a Russian teacher and a father who passionately played the violin. She turned out to be a child prodigy: at the tender age of 8 she gave her first piano recital. Six years later she finished her piano studies at the conservatoire of Odessa. Though a career as a concert pianist lay in store, she decided to become a composer, moving to Moscow to study composition with Reinhold Glière and Nikolai Myaskowski. She continued studying the piano however, with Felix Blumenfeld and Bertha Reingbald.
Like many of her colleagues Levina suffered under state censorship, yet she managed to develop a successful career as a composer. She finished her Piano Concerto nr. 1 in 1942, in the heat of World War II; it was premièred three years later. In spite of the circumstances the work has an optimistic and confident character. Written in the tradition of the grand Romantic piano concerto, it pits a virtuoso piano part against an energetic and dramatic orchestra.
The first movement opens with sweeping chords from the piano over the entire keyboard, answered by a broad, unison theme in the orchestra. Levina sounds very self-assured: soaring melodies and pounding rhythms leave the listener virtually gasping for breath. The second movement is intensely lyrical, with supple runs from the piano, beautiful solos by the woods, and undulating strings with a touch of melancholy. The third and last movement is witty and lively. Its spiky rhythms, hammered piano chords, cheeky brass and droll woodwinds hint at the subtle parody Shostakovich liked to spice his music with.
Quite different in character is Piano Concerto nr. 2 that Levina composed in 1975, a year before her death. She suffered from a heart disease all her life and knew she was dying. She considered this to be her best work, yet couldn’t witness its première. There’s only one movement, the tone is darker, and virtuosity is not an issue per se.
Instead of taking the lead the pianist interacts subtly with a sometimes hushed, at other times rumbustious orchestra. The rhapsodic style full of contrasts calls to mind the Groupe des Six, though the underlying wistfulness makes it unmistakably Russian. – Levina truly is a kindred spirit of Shostakovich, her almost exact contemporary.
It is a shame Levina’s music is not better known, for it is engaging from beginning to end. Maria Lettberg and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra give their best under the accurate and dedicated direction of Ariana Matiakh. Their fresh and vivid performance ideally brings out the high quality of Levina’s music. Fingers crossed the Grammy nomination will indeed result in a Grammy Award.
Zara Levina: The Piano Concertos was released on the label Capriccio in 2017
Here’s a YouTube video of the recording process, including interviews with Matiakh and Lettberg