Valentina Levko: Star of the Bolshoi


How is it possible that I have never heard of Valentina Levko before? How could a singer of her calibre remain so unknown? Now that I have listened to the CD box set of her recordings, released by Brilliant Classics, I can only shake my head. Such beauty!

No matter who I asked, nobody had ever heard of Valentina Levko (1926). If it weren’t for the recordings, YouTube videos and reviews, you would almost doubt whether she even existed at all. Fortunately, there is now a CD box; 11 CDs packed into one simple box.

As a Russian, Levko was mainly cast in the Russian standard repertoire at the Bolshoi Theatre. But she had so much more to offer! At her ‘own’ concerts, she sang the entire ‘world literature’ of music: operas, but also songs, old music, folk music and popular songs. And all that usually in the original language.

“I prefer to sing Bach”, she is reported to have said. And Bach is certainly not lacking here: her “Erbarme dich” is accompanied by Mark Lubotsky on the violin in an unprecedented way. Old-fashioned? Yes, it is. So what?

She was an opera singer and that can really be heard, especially in a very heavy Schubert. But it has its merits, because even nostalgia is not what it used to be.

She is at her best as Dalila and Carmen, but the Spanish songs also suit her well. However, what struck me most was “O Mensch, gib acht”, from Mahler’s third symphony, in Russian. It was recorded in 1961, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin.

Levko as Dalila:

But that this mezzo was and is a Russian, is beyond dispute. Seven of the eleven CDs therefore contain the Russian repertoire: Russian opera arias, songs by Tchaikowski and twentieth-century Russian songs. You should not take the latter too literally; because, except for Prokofiev, the songs almost all sound like ordinary Russian songs. Very melodious, with a (for those who understand the lyrics) high “Soviet content”. I myself have nothing against it, I just like them.

Her way of singing is very subdued and she lacks the ugly breast tones that mar many a Slavic mezzo. Her interpretations are subdued, graceful and very moving. At times, she even reminds me of Fiorenza Cossotto.

As Mistress Quickly:

She is also irresistible in Russian folk songs. It is amazing how she  shakes off her classical training here and in all simplicity manages to move us. She sings the old romance “The Old Lemon Tree”, as the Russians say, “dusjostjipatjelno”, soul-searching – it will bring tears to your eyes.

In addition to studio recordings, there are also live recordings, e.g. from DRA (Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv). Among them is a cycle by Sviridov that I do not know, to the texts of Avetik Isaakyan, it is fascinating.

Valentina Levko sings Lyubasha’s aria from act II of “Tsar’s Bride” by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov

I also find the way she performs Marfa’s aria from Khovavnshchina by Mussorgsky incredibly beautiful. Very visionary and the threat is palpable. The sound is a little dull and poor, but you will soon forget that, thanks to the phenominally playing Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Kurt Masur. Marfa’s Prophecy’ was recorded in 1976, together with Ratmir’s aria from Ruslan and Ludmilla (Glinka).

Marfa: studio recording from 1974:

I am going to cherish this box as a great treasure.

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