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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, May 2011

It is always a pleasure to encounter an original musical mind operating at optimum inspiration, and that is what I hear in Igor Markevitch’s compositions. True, he heard the tramp of Stravinsky behind him as surely as Brahms heard the tramp of Beethoven, yet both composers created striking and original musical works that, while certainly owing something to their predecessors, could easily stand on their own.

This seventh volume of the orchestral works of Markevitch, recorded in 1998 and 1999, points this up even more forcefully than the previous installment I reviewed (Vol. 6). The Piano Concerto, stamping its way through a marcato first movement characterized by constant motion of the piano through modal scales and, as the liner notes state, unexpected shortening or lengthening of measures by an eighth or a 16th note, was conceived as a ballet piece for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo in 1929, though the composer premiered it as a concert work. The second movement is different from Stravinsky, both in its textural sparseness and delicate polytonality, while the finale is essentially a cadenza accompanied only by a bass drum. Martyn van den Hoek plays it with considerable élan and, when called for, requisite refinement.

Cantate, also begun as a Diaghilev project, was finished after the impresario’s death. The text is a surreal fantasy by Jean Cocteau: The opening chorus proclaims “The dormitories of the moon and those dead of love at the ends of corridors keep watch for love, in its turn, to bleed, women comb their hair at windows, give milk, argue in the laundries of the moon, dirty washing and necks gush forth black blood.” Not exactly Wachet auf, but it gets the point across, and Markevitch’s music here is remarkable, not least because it was initially conceived as a ballet based on The Emperor’s New Clothes! A contract had, in fact, been signed between them, but after Diaghilev’s sudden death from blood poisoning, Markevitch approached his friend Cocteau to write about bloody love and “dread bedrooms where movement stirs the curtains.” The Cantate is given a rousing performance here, and soprano Nienke Oostenrijk’s pure, sexless voice negotiates the difficult intervals very well.

Without question, however, the gem of this disc is Icare, a 25-minute tone poem adapted in 1943 from the original ballet score L’Envoi d’Icare. There were several ironies in this: First is the fact that, a year after he officially renounced his identity as a composer, Markevitch still thought enough of Icare to revise it one more time for performance; second is that, when the original score was performed in 1938 on a program with Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes, it was the first time that Stravinsky came to admire the music of his younger rival; third, in recomposing it as an orchestral piece, Markevitch removed some of the most striking and original features, such as a group of solo instruments tuned a quarter-tone higher than the rest of the orchestra; and fourth, it was possibly the last piece of his performed in concert. Leonard Bernstein played it three times at Carnegie Hall in 1958 and excited enough attention that, for the first time in 15 years, writers queried Markevitch about his years as a composer.

Naturally in such a revision, there were numerous changes of orchestration. The original version may be heard, and compared, on Vol. 3 in this series (Naxos 8.672153). As Christopher Lyndon-Gee puts it in his notes, this particular reworking resulted in “an utterly different, completely valid work. Though the surface distinctions are almost imperceptible…the internal rethinking of the work is profound.” Here we completely abandon comparisons with Stravinsky; this work is more like Messiaen or Ligeti. Transparent shards of orchestral light vie for attention, intermix, and overlay one another. Markevitch might indeed have removed the instruments pitched a quarter-tone high, but there is a great deal of microtonalism going on here nonetheless. Of course, all these innovations would be for naught if the music didn’t say something, and this score is moving as well as complex, like Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony, another work of the 1940s that took decades for audiences to understand. The piece dies away to a quiet finish. This is a remarkable disc.

David Hurwitz, February 2011

First, in case there’s any confusion: this was originally released on Marco Polo as Volume 6 for reasons we don’t need to discuss. On Naxos it’s now Volume 7 in the series of Markevitch orchestral music. Suffice it to say that all of the same music is here, and it’s great stuff. Markevitch was only 17 when he completed his Piano Concerto in 1929, but there’s nothing immature about it. The outer movements are motoric and neoclassical in the manner of Hindemith, while the central march recalls Kurt Weill, or perhaps anticipates the finale of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. The piano writing is mostly in two parts, with lots of rhythmic displacement (especially in the first movement, which freely mingles 6/8 with 3/4). Martyn van den Hoek gives a sparkling performance of the solo part—perhaps my only quibble is that he could have made a bit more of the allargando leading into the first movement recapitulation, but this is a very tiny point.

Cantata, to a text by Jean Cocteau, was a Diaghilev commission, one of his very last. Composed for soprano, male choir, and orchestra, once again the style (especially the chorale at the end) recalls Weill and the German school of the 1920s, even though the work’s French origins will naturally bring to mind Roussel and Martinu. Soprano Nienke Oostenrijk sings with a pleasing tone, not always the case with unfamiliar contemporary music, and once again Lyndon-Gee delivers amazingly confident performances given the trickiness of the idiom.

Icare is arguably Markevitch’s masterpiece, one of the great ballets of the 20th century. The version given here is the composer’s revision of 1943, one with slightly clarified textures, a touch more melodic interest, and no quarter-tones. It’s tempting to say that he was trying to sweeten the pill, but the truth is that both versions are perfectly valid and the overall impression isn’t hugely different. The music is fabulous, and a few split chords for full orchestra aside, Lyndon-Gee and his team do it full justice. The conductor is particularly adept in the constantly changing tempos of “Icare and the Birds”. The fateful flight itself has the right relentless intensity (and a bit of Prokofiev in his “mechanical” mode), while the concluding “Death of Icarus” is unforgettably ethereal, and all the more moving in its lack of sentimentality.

These performances are all extremely well engineered. In the Concerto the solo piano is well balanced within the orchestral texture (it plays along with the ensemble much of the time), and in the Cantata the vocal forces project the text well without obscuring the instrumental lines. It would have been nice, though, if the conductor’s full name appeared somewhere on the tray cards—you need to look at the excellent notes to find it. If you don’t know Markevitch the composer, this is probably the best place to start.

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