Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Dan Davis, January 2015

La Taille de l’Homme…[is] 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. © 2015 Read complete review

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, January 2011

This is Volume 6 in the ongoing series of reissues Naxos is doing of Christopher Lyndon-Gee’s groundbreaking late 1990s series of recordings of the music of Igor Markevitch. Unlike many other conductors who dabbled in composition (Walter, Furtwängler, Klemperer, etc.), Markevitch actually gained fame as a composer first, greatly admired and promoted by Cortot, Diaghilev, and Boulanger. At age 17, he was Diaghilev’s last “discovery,” writing the music for the ballet L’Habit du Roi (The Emperor’s New Clothes), but at the age of 29, the victim of a mental and physical crisis in which he felt “dead between two lives,” he completely gave up composing and became a full-time conductor. He became, as we all know, one of the greatest conductors of his age, yet for the next 40 years he shrugged off his life as a composer, saying, “I am objective enough to claim that there is music that needs to be heard before mine, and for which the need is more urgent. Apart from that, if my works are good enough, they can wait; and if they cannot wait, it is pointless to play them.”

Ironically, this attitude put his works in the same jeopardy of neglect that befell one of the composers he championed, Lili Boulanger. Without public exposure for his music, it quite frankly ceased to exist, and without existence, it became forgotten.

This is my first exposure to Markevitch’s music, and I am simply flabbergasted by it. Although one hears elements of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and even Schoenberg in it, his musical voice is entirely his own. As Lyndon-Gee points out in his liner notes, “Not Neoclassical, it has classical restraint and a poise that is almost frigidly disciplined. In an aesthetic distant from the transmuted romanticism that propels the music of Berg and Schoenberg, he initiated an exploration of dissonance (through polytonality) that the perspective of the 1990s can readily identify as a fertile harmonic path.” Markevitch rejected what he felt was an “indulgent prettiness” of impressionism and sought, instead, a purity and detachment of style.

La Taille de l’Homme was only given its title in 1982, when Markevitch was preparing his recently relocated manuscript for a performance; it replaced his working title from the period of composition (1938–39), Musical Oration. The surviving score, however, is only part I of a planned two-part work. The second half never went beyond the sketch stage. What emerges quite clearly here is a tightly constructed text whose images portray the stark, dispassionate insignificance of man’s situation within the universe. It contrasts our basic helplessness with the overwhelming vastness of our earthly and cosmic environments. Written primarily for strings, it is set to a text by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. Lyndon-Gee speculates in his notes that Markevitch’s decision to end his compositional career possibly stems in part from the fact that Ramuz, who was unwell and depressed by the war, wished to let the project drop. Since this correspondence took place in 1941, the last year in which Markevitch wrote music, I believe that the supposition is valid.

Complex polyrhythms underlie music of general sadness and resignation. A relentless moto perpetuo in the strings neutralizes and almost buries the solo soprano by constantly doubling at the unison with solo trumpet. The long, introductory Prelude is pretty much a complete work in and of itself, and could easily be performed in an orchestral concert without a singer. I was particularly struck by the sinfonia concertante style of the writing here, in which instruments play short solos backed by the full orchestra.

The Arnhem Philharmonic is superb in every respect, and I am glad that the various instrumental soloists are identified.

Gapplegate Music Review, October 2010

The story of Igor Markevitch the composer is most unusual and rather tragic. For eight years he was considered one of the brightest lights of European new music and he turned out a series of orchestral works that show a remarkable maturity for someone of his age. More important the compositions show a mastery of the orchestral palate and an originality that shine through today as you hear the best of the works. Then, abruptly, he stopped composing completely and went on to international acclaim as a conductor. He never went back. At the time of his death in 1983 only one of his works had been recorded, and that on a set of inferior shellac 78-rpm dubs.

Volume Six (Naxos 8.572156) of Naxos’s Complete Orchestral Works introduces us to a major work he composed toward the end (1938–39) of his compositional career. La Taille de l’Homme was left unfinished, only half of the projected work survives. But those 55 or so minutes are impressive evidence of Markevitch’s stature.

Scored for soprano (Lucy Shelton on this recording) and symphony orchestra (the Arnhem Philharmonic under Lydon-Gee here), the work has depth, orchestral luminescence, a bittersweet ethos and scherzo-like moments with a kind of grotesque, macabre quality. The world premiere recording is a very good one and gives you an excellent look at how Markevitch by that point had mastered his art. There are the influences of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and perhaps Milhaud, but the more you listen the more you realize that the at-first vague feeling that he doesn’t fit into any of those model exemplifications has grown as you become more familiar with his work. Perhaps no more so than with the work at hand.

Anyone with an interest in the 20th-century music world cannot afford to miss the experience of Igor Markevitch. This recording of La Taille de l’Homme is a very good place to start.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, October 2010

This disk contains all that was completed from an evening-long work Markevitch imagined towards the end of his composing career. What we have is an imposing edifice, a suite, if you like, in six movements, four of them containing a solo part for soprano voice and all of them highlighting a solo instrument from the orchestra—wind, brass and strings. The language is Stravinskian neo-classical, but, as always with Markevitch, the music does not sound like any other composer. The text is by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, who supplied the text for Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, and, according to Lyndon-Gee’s note in the booklet, “…is a tightly woven text whose wealth of images emphasize the stark, dispassionate neutrality of man’s situation within the universe, contrasting his essential helplessness with the incomprehensible vastness of the terrestrial and cosmic environments.” Wow! That’s some scheme, as Yossarian might have said!

The opening prelude, which plays for a quarter of the full playing time, is of a brooding intensity, dark, sombre and very impressive—this could stand as a tone poem on its own merits. What follows doesn’t quite, for me, live up to the promise of this music. The second movement is generally fast, and is named Ornamented Chorale. There follow four pieces called Sonata. The first is basic note-spinning for a group of solo instruments. This is the weakest section and exemplifies neo-classicism at its least interesting. It’s vacuous, says nothing, and adds nothing to the overall work. Sonata 2 is another vocal movement, graced with some delightful woodwind ornamentation. A scherzo follows and the work ends with a short movement which incorporates a piano cadenza.

Taken as a whole, the work clearly isn’t up to the very high standards set by other works of this very interesting composer. There simply isn’t the invention of such works as Rébus (1931) (available on Naxos 8.572154) or L’envol d’Icare (1933) (Naxos 8.572153). Markevitch seems to be going through the compositional motions too often and doesn’t seem to be engaged with his material. Of course, I am grateful to have anything by Markevitch made available but this isn’t a piece which would make me want to return to it, except for the astonishing prelude which is in a different class to the rest of the piece.

As with the other issues of Markevitch’s music—all of which first appeared on Marco Polo—Christopher Lyndon-Gee and his Arnhem Philharmonic give strong performances, and as before, prove themselves to be devoted advocates of the composer’s work. However, a stumbling block for me is Lucy Shelton’s use of a fast vibrato on almost every note. This grates on the ear and quickly becomes tiresome. The sound is very good and the notes fascinating. If you’ve got the other issues in this Markevitch series you’ll want this one, but it’s more for the sake of completeness than for its own sake.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2010

This is the sixth volume in the orchestral works of one of the great musical enigmas of the 20th century. In my review of the previous release (May 2010), you will find details of a life that changed course from composer to conductor and has been described by the musicologist, David Drew, as ‘a silence like no other in the music of this century or before’. The score of La Taille de l’Homme (The Measure of Man) remained unperformed until the year preceding Markevitch’s death in 1983, almost forty-five years after completion. It is a score lasting not far short of the hour and has the unusual scoring of solo soprano, ten solo instruments and strings. It’s present title was not the original, but the one given by the composer in 1982 to remove it from sacred connotations. What exists is the first of two parts of a projected work to a text written by the Swiss poet, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. It was finished when Markevitch was 27, and sets the story of mankind on this earth, and the journey that it takes, the most extended movement being a withdrawn and rather sombre orchestral prelude. It’s roots are in the late-Romantic era, with hints of Stravinsky, though it is very much an individualistic style that is not easy to enter into. I would start at track 5, an attractive scherzo that inhabits a world of pleasures. The celebrated American soprano, Lucy Shelton, performs her demanding role in three vocal movements with deceptive ease, while the Markevitch champion, Christopher Lyndon-Gee, obtains commendably committed playing over a number of recording sessions. Previously released on the Marco Polo label, at its lower price I hope it engenders a new audience.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group