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Igor Markevich: Classic Archive
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tannhäuser Overture; Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10 (1925)
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Symphony of Psalms (1930)
Orchestra and Chorus of the ORTF, Paris
Igor Markevich (conductor)
Filmed at the Besançon Festival, 15 Sept. 1968 (Wagner), and the ORTF, Paris, 14 June 1963 (Shostakovich ) and 15 June 1967 (Stravinsky)
Bonus Item – Stravinsky conducts STRAVINSKY

The Firebird Suite (1945)
New Philharmonia Orchestra
Recorded at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 14 September 1965
EMI CLASSIC ARCHIVE DVB 4901109 [112’53]


There may well be other music lovers who, like me, came to The Rite of Spring through the 1950s recording by Markevich and the Philharmonia. It certainly qualifies as a classic, and if the music making on this DVD were in that league, this might also. As it is, it is just quite interesting.

I suppose the trouble is that filmed concerts, especially some of the studio-bound stuff we have here, have to be something really special to be any more interesting than straight CDs, which are usually in better sound. That’s why I prefer rehearsal footage, where we see the maestro getting to grips with the score, rather than a fairly bland end result. Markevich was obviously a superb technician (he would be as a composer) and specialised in 20th Century scores. But watching his detached, precisely dispassionate style is a bit unsatisfying. I don’t like histrionics, but with grainy black and white and slightly ropy mono sound, there has to be something extra to make you sit up and take notice.

The best results are in the Wagner items that were, interestingly, recorded live. There is a certain amount of tension, and the French orchestra plays very well. Climaxes, especially in the Tannhäuser Overture, are suitably ecstatic, though this being Markevich, are still held in check to a degree. The Tristan chunks are good, though here the poor tape quality does not help, with long notes having audible wow and flutter (rather like listening to a poor cassette in the car). At least the playing communicates, and the audience, though slightly polite, obviously enjoys it.

The Shostakovich and Stravinsky items were Markevich specialities. He conducts without a score, and the playing is pretty good, though not world class. Sound quality again is a bit restricted, with those marvellous, big piano chords at the end of the second movement something of a non-event. Indeed, the rather matronly pianist is a bit behind the orchestra throughout her octave runs, something Markevich should have sorted out. It’s a crisp, no-nonsense performance, with fast-ish tempos and no indulgence anywhere. The Symphony of Psalms is similar, but here we have the added problem of a wobbly French chorus. Having just listened to John Eliot Gardiner’s superbly disciplined DG disc this sounded almost amateur. Ensemble is also curiously untidy at the beginning, with the two pianos and harps slightly out of sync with the rest. Maybe pressure was on the conductor, or maybe we really have got used to higher standards. It is certainly a dramatic reading, but marred by that choir sound.

This DVD could well sell on the strength of the bonus item, a classic piece of footage if ever there was one. Now this is more like it, with the frail but eagle-eyed 83-year-old Stravinsky inspiring the New Philharmonia to play his Firebird Suite for their lives. In fact, they are really the old Philharmonia, having only just added the ‘New’ for contractual reasons. Keen viewers will spot some wonderful players here: Alan Civil (horn), Sidney Sutcliffe (oboe), Gareth Morris (flute) and, of course, Hugh Bean as leader. They obviously enjoy playing for the great man in what turned out to be his last London appearance. As Alan Sanders rightly says in his interesting note, posterity is lucky that the TV director (credited as Brian Large) decided to virtually leave the camera entirely on Stravinsky. We witness the old man presiding, still with care and obvious affection, over a score he had created 55 years before, in his dazzlingly brilliant early days. Sound quality is also markedly better, with the BBC engineers determined to do the occasion justice. Now this really is where classic archive film comes into its own.

Tony Haywood

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