, December 2001
"Volume 5 of Marco Polo's essential series of Igor Markevitch's music sheds further light on one of the strangest compositional careers in music history. By now it's familiar: teenaged composer dubbed 'Prince Igor' to Stravinsky's 'King Igor'; a meteoric blaze through the musical firmament with important works of strong individuality; and then a self-imposed exile from composing at age 29. After World War II Markevitch re-emerged, now as a leading conductor. The reasons for abandoning his composing career may never be known. What we do know from conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee's pioneering work and Marco Polo's adventurous recording policies, is that the extravagant praise his contemporaries heaped upon the young Markevitch was not misplaced.
La Taille de l'Homme, written in 1939, is Part One of an unfinished evening-long work for soprano and chamber instrumental group (four winds, horn, trumpet, piano, and string quintet). Three of the six movements have texts by C.F. Ramuz, best known today as the librettist of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat. The theme of La Taille de l'Homme was to have been a humanistic evocation of life's trajectory, the stages of life linked to the passage of the seasons, presumably a sort of Shakespearian 'seven ages of man'. What emerged though, in those dark days clouded by the onset of war, was a text tilted toward man's rather insignificant place in the universe, proceeding 'upon his journey across the expanses of himself and of Time.' When Markevitch tried to get Ramuz to complete the text to Part Two, the self-pitying poet produced unusable sketches and the work was shelved.
La Taille de l'Homme opens with a darkly atmospheric instrumental Prelude. A solo trumpet is slowly joined by winds and then the other instruments recreate the beginnings of life, and the movement progresses toward the light, as if encapsulating the totality of the work itself. In the following 'Ornamented Chorale' the trumpet doubles the soprano, an effect as effective as it is startling, a modernist's bow to a common Baroque device. The theme is introduced: Man 'Lost beneath the heavens, yet bearing the whole of the heavens within himself.' The remaining four movements trace life's journey in music of great vitality and rhythmic ingenuity. There are no longueurs in this 55-minute work and lest you think it's another exercise in mid-European angst, be assured there are numerous virtuoso passages throughout, from the violin mini-concerto in the third movement to the orchestral-scaled piano interlude separating the final two movements. It's an absorbing work, brilliantly played by Lyndon-Gee's Arnhem musicians who are captured in equally brilliant sonics. Soprano Lucy Shelton sings with sensitivity and even her fleeting moments of apparent strain only serve to underline the fragility portrayed in the text. Lyndon-Gee deserves our thanks for this outstanding series and for this latest chapter in it."