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Gavin Dixon
Gramophone, March 2014

THE SPECIALIST’S GUIDE TO…Conductors who compose: # 3

A commission from Diaghilev launched Markevitch’s composing career, and throughout the 1930s he was at the forefront of the Parisian new music scene. Prokofiev and Stravinsky were significant influences, yet his style was distinctive and impressively assured. Markevitch stopped composing at the age of 33 to focus exclusively on conducting. In later life he allowed his music to fall into neglect but it is well served today by a seven-volume series on Naxos. © 2014 Gramophone

Hubert Culot
MusicWeb International, April 2010

Several years ago Marco Polo launched what I consider as a brave venture in recording the complete orchestral works by Igor Markevitch. This project was then enthusiastically master-minded by Christopher Lyndon-Gee who obviously devoted much time and energy in bringing it to fruition. However, after having collected all the different volumes issued then I realised that two works were missing: the Partita for piano and orchestra and—more importantly—the oratorio Le Paradis Perdu that many regard as Markevitch’s magnum opus. It appears that the Partita was recorded at about the same time as the other volumes whereas the oratorio had to wait for a couple of years. These are now released as Volume 1 while the other volumes are now re-issued under Naxos.

The Partita of 1931 is in fact Markevitch’s second piano concerto, the other one being simply titled Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. It is in three fairly concise movements displaying the composer’s Neo-classical writing, at least in the outer movements titled Ouverture and Rondo respectively. The Ouverture is a brilliant Toccata propelled by lively, often capricious rhythms. It is followed by a somewhat longer and definitely more personal Choral. One may remark that the central movement of the earlier piano concerto was also the more searching and personal of the work. The Partita is rounded off by a lively, energetic Rondo in much the same vein as the first movement. What comes clearly through here—as in much else in Markevitch’s music—is the technical assurance that the music displays, although one might be forgiven for hearing various contemporary influences such as that of Stravinsky and Hindemith for example. The Partita, however, is a remarkable achievement in its own right.

The oratorio Le Paradis Perdu (“Paradise Lost”) is undoubtedly Markevitch’s most ambitious work. La Taille de l’Homme should have outsized it but the composer completed the first part only—this nevertheless plays for some fifty minutes. The oratorio falls into two sizeable parts and is scored for soprano (Eve), mezzo-soprano (La Vie) and tenor (Satan), chorus and orchestra. One might think that the libretto is based on Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’; but, as Christopher Lyndon-Gee remarks in his thoroughly researched and well-informed insert notes, this is rather far from the truth although the score proudly states “after Milton, assembled and translated by Igor Markevitch”. I will not go into details about the discrepancies between the composer’s libretto and Milton’s poem. First, I do not know Milton’s poem enough (a euphemism on my part indeed). Second, Lyndon-Gee goes into considerable details about the composer’s arrangement and anyone is best referred to his excellent notes. Let me however note that some phrases such as “stupide épouvantail” (“foolish scarecrow”) referring to Eve or “quelle proie facile” (“what easy prey”) referring to Man as well as Eve’s words opening the second part (“My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) do not certainly come from Milton! The way, too, in which the second part develops to achieve redemption is a bit too contrived to be entirely satisfying and in accord with Milton’s own vision.

Next comes the music. It is often quite imaginatively done. The opening section—Eve’s first long solo—is underpinned by a simple but highly effective ostinato swelling up and from short-lived climaxes. This is followed by a rather long section in which the chorus depicts Man’s birth, at times briefly relying on choeur parlé. After a short aria by the mezzo-soprano comes Satan’s violent, angular aria in which he expresses his fears and hatred for Man who he feels might be a menace for him. He swears to destroy Man and any creature. The chorus then implores “good and powerful spirits” to protect those innocent human souls. Satan threatens to haunt Man’s nights and dreams. Further questionings from the chorus lead to Eve’s temptation, Satan encouraging her to eat the apple while the chorus warns her not to do so. The first part ends with a confrontation between Life and Satan. The second part opens with Eve’s aria (“My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”). The second part is mostly about redemption achieved through Love and “the Spirit”, whatever Markevitch might have had in mind; and ends in gloriously blazing light. As already mentioned the music is often quite imaginative but, again, one may reasonably spot a number of influences such as that of Stravinsky and—at times—that of Honegger and of Frank Martin (to my ears at least), and none the worse for that. Le Paradis Perdu is an imposing, ambitious work but not without flaws…All concerned, however, Naxos deserve one’s gratitude for bringing such an important work back to live.

Uncle Dave Lewis, February 2009

One of the most prestigious and consequential revivals of unknown composers undertaken by the Marco Polo label in the 1990s was its series of seven discs devoted to Igor Markevitch. Best known as an expert conductor of Russian music, particularly that of Stravinsky, Markevitch abandoned composing after a lengthy illness in 1941–1942 apparently deprived him of his gift; he was only 30 and had more than 40 years left to him. Markevitch suppressed his output until near the very end of his conducting career, when he gradually began to revive it; this positive trend was interrupted by his death. Unlike most "conductors who compose," Markevitch’s music does not have the orchestrally centered but emotionally distanced quality seen as typical; it is white hot, passionate, and stylistically radical for its era, a step forward from both Stravinsky and the French neo-classicism common to the time in which Markevitch was most active. The Marco Polo volumes have been unavailable for some time, and happily these are being reactivated in the regular, Naxos series, but with a twist: Naxos’ Igor Markevitch: Complete Orchestral Works, Vol. 1, is a wholly new volume, containing two major Markevitch works that, for some reason, Marco didn’t included in the first series, though as the recordings date from 1997-1999, were likely made for it but withheld.

The band is the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra under Christopher Lyndon-Gee, and the disc features Markevitch’s pithy Partita for piano and orchestra (1931) and his enormous oratorio Le Paradis Perdu (Paradise Lost, 1933-1934). Naturally, there is a problem of balance listening straight through, given that Markevitch’s tart, jazzy, and understated micro-concerto—played winningly by pianist Martijn van den Hoek—has to share pride of place with what is probably his most gigantic creation, but it makes for a full CD and demonstrates Markevitch’s range. As a teenager, Igor Markevitch was the last composer employed by Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, so some elements within the Paris press tended to refer to Markevitch as a "little Stravinsky." This did not go down well with either Stravinsky or Markevitch and fueled a mutual enmity between the two that proved lasting. The Partita has a superficial resemblance to Stravinsky’s Concerto for piano and winds, but it sounds just as much, if not more so, like Prokofiev, and is darker and more keen-edged than either composer, though the work remains just as listenable and compelling.

Le Paradis Perdu is a masterpiece; it is probably the most challenging, forward-looking, and consequential piece Markevitch wrote…Le Paradis Perdu is a sprawling vision of almost Ivesian density and representing a completely individual harmonic voice. The part of Eve is so difficult you really need to have a soprano who can sing anything, and they have that in Lucy Shelton here; Jon Garrison’s Lucifer is ingratiating, persuasive, and scheming. The wind writing in the first part of the work is positively unearthly, and in a rhythmic sense Le Paradis Perdu moves from an elastic lassitude to strident, "brutish" figures; the progression from one rhythmic identity to another is seamless, and one is left with the impression that this might be how Markevitch organized the piece, in addition to the action in his libretto, informed by consultation with both Jean Cocteau and Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, librettist of Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat.

The recording of Le Paradis Perdu is really very distant, perhaps to accommodate the huge swells of volume in the piece, but sometimes trying to pick out Garrison’s eager tenor amid the thick texture of chorus and pounding percussion is a bit of a strain. Nevertheless, Le Paradis Perdu is such an expensive undertaking that one is grateful to have it at all, and the performance still manages to harness the breathtaking power of Markevitch’s music. Those who collected the earlier series will want this volume to fill it out, whereas for those who missed Markevitch the first time around, Naxos’ Igor Markevitch: Complete Orchestral Works, Vol. 1, should either serve as an enticement to obtain the remaining numbers of the series, or to answer the question of whether or not to continue. Anyone seriously interested in pre-World War II twentieth century music, though, really should hear Le Paradis Perdu at least one time.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2008

Igor Markevitch will be remembered as one of the most distinguished conductors working in the second half of the 20th century, yet the first sector of his life, as a highly regarded composer, is now almost forgotten.

Fleeing from Russia in 1914 with his musical parents, Markevitch spent his formative years in Switzerland studying the piano with his father. He was still a precociously gifted teenager when his compositions captured the attention of many influential musicians. They included the impresario Dyagilev, who, with the help of the celebrated dance company, Ballets Russes, launched his works onto the international scene. At the age of twenty-nine he suffered a severe illness and, for reasons never fully understood, he was never to return to composition. So much did he renounce the impressive success that his works had enjoyed, he chose to ignore them in a that long subsequent career as a conductor. Apart from one brief work, this series of recordings, first released on the Marco Polo label, represents the first time we have been able to enjoy his music on disc. Mixing tonality with an element of atonality, the young Markevitch become strongly influenced by Stravinsky, the three-movement Partita, completed when he was nineteen, being one of his readily approachable works. Generally regarded as his finest score, the oratorio, Le Paradis Perdu (Paradise Lost),has been likened to Stravinsky’s Persephone, though its mood is highly personal and it needs some work by the listener to come to terms with its musical langauge. The weight of three solo singers, choir and orchestra is sparingly used, and even today it sounds uncompromisingly modern. Often taxing for the soloists, Jon Garrison makes a valiant effort at the cruelly high tenor part of Satan. The Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra, under the dedicated advocacy of the conductor, Christopher Lyndon-Gee, lacks nothing in enthusiasm as it surmounts the considerably taxing scores. Reliable if unspectacular sound quality.

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