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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, September 2011

Igor Markevitch’s fascinating and surprising orchestration of Bach’s Musical Offering may escape the notice of Bach collectors because it’s presented here as Vol. 8 in the complete works of Markevitch. It’s also interesting that this arrangement dates from 1949–50, by which time Markevitch had completely given up composing original music. Unlike his own compositions, which he didn’t perform in public again until 1978, he really liked this Bach orchestration, programming it many times after he finished it and recording it in 1956.

In one sense this version is a performance revision as well as an orchestration. Markevitch reorders the variations as 1, 7, 3, 2, 9, 9 (inversion), 6, 4, 5, 10, which produces a better contrast of mood and builds momentum rather than letting the listener down. His intention was to prove that the music could, indeed, function as an attractive concert work and not just as a pedagogical exercise. Whether or not one agrees with this sequence, there can be no doubt that Markevitch’s arrangement brought the Musical Offering into the lives and consciousness of many listeners who might never have heard or appreciated it.

The orchestration separates the strings and winds almost stereophonically on the stage, which adds depth to the sound while reminding the listener of the various voices of the fugues. The use of a chamber group for the sonata preserves the work’s structural integrity despite the use of modern instruments. The arrangement was instigated by his former teacher, Nadia Boulanger, who completed the keyboard continuo part that was originally assigned to Dinu Lipatti. Lyndon-Gee’s liner notes point out that this continuo part is somewhat dated today, “highly pianistic in manner, and little suited to the harpsichord,” but that his performance includes it as the arrangement is “in some sense a document on the faltering road towards reconstruction of a historically aware performance practice of the 18th century.”

What I find more of a problem than the orchestration or continuo is the fact that it smoothes out the Bach original too much—making, as Handel put it in Messiah, “the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” It starts out very well and interestingly, no question about it, but by the time you reach the sonata it has already begun to sound too much like “Bach lite.” Nor would I, like Lyndon-Gee, consider this arrangement typical of a fumbling toward authentic performance practice. Boulanger’s own arrangements of Monteverdi and French Renaissance music were much closer to the originals than this, as were the 1950s performances and recordings of Thurston Dart, Møgens Wöldike, the New York Pro Musica, and the famous German radio performances of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Bach’s St. John Passion. You can’t just lump every attempt to popularize or re-perform early music into a generic bucket labeled “fumbling” or “failure.” Of course, I do not think that Markevitch particularly failed in what he set out to do. He wanted to make the Musical Offering understandable and enjoyable for modern audiences. He had no illusion that he was improving on the original or making it “better.”

With all these aesthetic questions brought up, but perhaps not satisfactorily answered—only you, the listener, can truly make your own judgment on this work—you are free to decide if Bach-Markevitch is for you or not. I thought long and hard about it, but in the end rejected it, fine and well meaning though it is.



Byzantion
MusicWeb International, March 2011

This is the eighth and final volume in Naxos’s Complete Orchestral Works of Igor Markevitch. It is in fact a re-release of Marco Polo 8.225120, which was labelled, somewhat confusingly, volume 7. The Naxos series began in 2008 with a volume of newly ‘discovered’, relatively early works, after which all other discs have been re-releases of the earlier Marco Polo series—meaning that Naxos volume 2 was the same as Marco Polo Volume 1, Naxos volume 3 the same as Marco Polo volume 2, and so on.

Naxos volume 1 is reviewed here, 2 and 3 here (as Marco Polo 1 and 2 alongside Marco Polo 3), Naxos 4 and 5 here, volume 6 here, and volume 7 here (as Marco Polo 6). This final release has already been reviewed here, with plenty of historical and technical description, so the review below focuses primarily on the music.

To reassure those fearing otherwise, Markevitch’s Musical Offering is not a Stokowski-style orchestration/lushification exercise, although the opening Ricercar does start the work off in that direction. But Markevitch proves to be more sensitive.

Whether or not there is any real musical point to his reworking of Bach is a moot point—on balance probably not. Nevertheless, Markevitch was fond of this work, conducting it himself on several occasions—something he did not do with his original music! And there is no doubting the intelligence of Markevitch’s reshuffling and tweaking of Bach’s ten original Canons into a kind of symphonic arch, now entitled ‘Theme and Variations’—nor the stroke of brilliance provided by the appearance of first the oboe, then the cor anglais and bassoon in ‘Variations’ V and VI.

The trio Sonata section is less successful—not in itself, but in the context of an otherwise orchestral arrangement, the chamber forces of the Sonata—almost pure Bach—seem out of place. In his notes Lyndon-Gee argues that the participation of orchestral strings in the Sonata—to amplify the solo violin—“cleverly integrates” this section into the composition as a whole. But the strings are so discreet, the harpsichord so obviously Baroque, that the Sonata sounds more like a separate piece. Still a very attractive one, though.

The orchestra returns for the final Ricercar, which Markevitch labels Fuga. Using mainly strings, he makes of this beautiful, enigmatic fugue a rich, dark, but ultimately uplifting finale. Overall, it is Bach’s, not Markevitch’s, genius that illuminates this Musical Offering—but probably that was what Markevitch expected and wanted.

The liner-notes, which include an extended essay on Markevitch and his music, a detailed chronology of Markevitch’s life, and, for CD notes, a thorough discussion of Bach’s original work and what Markevitch does with it, have all been updated and expanded from the Marco Polo original.

Lyndon-Gee and the Arnhem Philharmonic, with the soloists drawn from its ranks, give another sterling performance. The sound quality is not the greatest. It is clear, certainly, and communicates the intentions of Markevitch’s stereophonic arrangement of instrumental forces on stage. However, resonance and background rumble are more than evident in the quieter sections of the opening Ricercar and the Theme and Variations. The Sonata is far better recorded—presumably the microphones are closer to the performers and therefore pick up much less background noise.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2011

We have reached the eight volume of the complete orchestral works of Igor Markevitch, this arrangement of music by Bach only adding to the enigma that surrounds him. In previous reviews I have documented his early career as a prodigy composer who, in 1941 and at the age of twenty-nine, was struck down by a mysterious illness that brought an end to composition. After a slow recovery he pursued a highly successful career as a conductor, and while he helped to promote contemporary music, he curiously failed to promote his own works. Yet there was one exception to this strange story when, in 1949, he began work on an orchestral realisation of Bach’s The Musical Offering. A history of the original score is set out in the excellent booklet with the disc, pointing out that the composer later changed its contents and left many unanswered questions. Markevitch’s interest may well have been aroused by his mentor, Nadia Boulenger, to whom the score was dedicated. His reworking calls for three orchestral groups and a solo quartet placed stereophonically.That would, in the concert hall, open up the individual strands, though these gel on disc. He then goes further in reordering the sequence of the music which he believed made good sense. Should the result sound like an orchestral version of the organ, or would Bach have wanted the strands to be highlighted by different colours? Markevitch takes the latter to be true and uses the pungency of woodwind tone to achieve that objective, and by judicious use of low registered instruments restricts that part of an organ sound. The Arnhem Orchestra is very good; the recording is clear, but I guess only in a ‘live’ concert will we really hear Markevitch’s objective.






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6:04:30 PM, 17 September 2014
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