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CD Review

Igor Markevitch

Naxos 8.572155

Complete Orchestral Works
Volume 5

  • Lorenzo il Magnifico (1940)
  • Psaume (1933)
Lucy Shelton, soprano
Cappella Carolina
Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
Naxos 8.572155 52:08
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Also available on Marco Polo 8.223882: Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan

Summary for the Busy Executive: One step to silence.

Igor Markevitch's composing career spanned roughly thirteen years, from ages 16 to 29, first making a Paris success in 1928 when he landed a Diaghilev commission. Many considered him the next important composer after Stravinsky. As essentially a stateless person (he was born in Kiev, his family had left Ukraine for Paris in 1914), he found himself in Italy during World War II and joined the anti-Fascist resistance. By the war's end, he had not only lost the desire to compose, he had determined to bury as much of his work as possible. He wrote nothing more and discouraged others from performing the available scores. In roughly the decade before his death, the musicologist David Drew, head of New Music for Boosey and Hawkes, got him to relent. Sporadic performances followed, some attended by Markevitch, and he eventually led at least one concert of his work before he died in 1983.

The present 7-volume series of recordings come from the Nineties – originally on Marco Polo, now on Naxos. This disc features two large vocal-orchestral works – one written during the heat of Markevitch's career, the other almost at its end.

Markevitch wrote Psaume almost as an "answer" to Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. Attracted to universalist sentiments, he wanted to write a work in several languages (which would be heard simultaneously!) but ran into difficulties finding texts. He settled for a piece that used French versions of the Psalms, along with his own additions and paraphrases. The latter, however, occur rarely. Psaume premiered in Florence and occasioned a mini-riot. I haven't determined whether blows actually landed.

The music, typical of a lot of Markevitch, exploits the tension between chaos and primitive ritual. The ritual is the controlling vessel for chaotic energy. This erupts in the very opening measures with a steady intonation in octaves spilling over into wild orchestral whoops. The slow movement, which follows without a break, begins with a long flute solo. Gradually, the soloist joins in a duet, followed by basses and timpani. The psalms express atonement, and you do get that from the music – the penitent soul before God – but the score also sings of intense mysticism. The third movement, Psalm 148, blazes con fuoco with barbaric fire, as the text exhorts all creation to bless the Lord. The last movement, soft and molto tranquillo, opens with a certain peace and blessing, but gradually this disintegrates. It's like someone snuffing out the stars, one by one.

Lorenzo il Magnifico is Markevitch's last original orchestral work. Only his revision of L'envol d'Icare (Icare, 1943) and his arrangement of Bach's Musical Offering (1949) come later. At the time of composition, he lived in Florence, where he became friends with Alfredo Casella and especially Luigi Dallapiccola. The latter, according to Lyndon-Gee's notes, had some influence on this composition, and the work does show Markevitch's music heading in a new direction, although not necessarily Dallapiccola's. The work sets poetry by Lorenzo de' Medici, known as "il Magnifico," ruler of Florence during one of its greatest periods. Not only did he gather and support a glittering array of artists, musicians, and poets, but he became a canonical Italian poet himself. The texts in general talk about love, youth, transitoriness, with the dead beloved a figure alluded to, but never stated outright. The quality of the poetry surpasses the theosophical blather that usually attracted Markevitch.

In five movements, this score for soprano and orchestra represents a new arrow in Markevitch's compositional quiver. From the first, the music sings more warmly, less jagged and abrasive than before, as the poet seeks reunion in dreams with his lost beloved. The hieratic and primeval have gone. Instead, the work breathes air of Italy. The second movement, essentially an ode to Spring, dances joyfully in Respighi-like colors, as it evokes various birds. At the end, the lady, a vision amid nature, calls silently to the poet.

I think the third movement – "Contemplazione della bellezza" (contemplation of beauty) a slow orchestra-only meditation of near-Mahlerian intensity – the finest of the five, far more sustained than anything Markevitch had produced to this point. In the fourth movement, marked "Adagio in modo tragico," the poet complains of the cruelty of the beauty who ignores him. There are stabs of pain in the music, still less acid than any of several passages in Psaume. Markevitch had expressed Angst in bright, sharp-stick-in-your-eye colors. Here, the pain is heavier and more profound.

Movement V, the longest and most complex, begins as an energetic gigue, more or less celebrating carpe diem. Then the gears switch to a blue funk, as the poet considers the evanescence of youth and life. Lyndon-Gee points out the musical similarity to Markevitch's "Hymne à la Morte". Then the gigue starts up again and it's a light whirl to the finish.

Lorenzo represents a new direction for Markevitch, musically and, I think, philosophically – what he now wants to express and how he thinks his music should express it. Unfortunately, he never pursued this path, which I believe would have led to even better work. This, to me, represents the sadness of his composing career.

Lucy Shelton, the soloist, heroically takes on some very difficult vocal music indeed, which demands at some times lightness and flexibility, at others sheer oomph. I sometimes hear her heading a few cents flat in the upper range, but it doesn't sink her. More important, however, is her on-again, off-again diction. She doesn't just swallow consonants, I swear she sings the wrong vowel. It can get bad enough that you can't understand her with the text in front of you. No complaints about the chorus and orchestra. Lyndon-Gee has strongly championed Markevitch in the past and does so here, most impressively sussing out the different characters of the two scores and keeping a well-defined shape in the music. A standout disc in the Naxos series.

Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz.

Trumpet