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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Piotr Ilych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Manfred Symphony, op. 58 (1)
Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)

A Life for the Tsar: Overture, Polonaise, Krakowiak, Waltz (2)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

La Forza del Destino: Overture (3)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

La Mer (4)
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)

España (5)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Daphnis and Chloë: Suite no. 2 (6) (live)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op. 28 (7) (live)
Belgrade Opera Chorus (2), North German Radio Chorus (6), French National Radio Orchestra (7), Lamoureux Orchestra (2, 4), London Symphony Orchestra (1), New Philharmonia Orchestra (3), North German Radio Symphony Orchestra (6), Spanish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra (5)/Igor Markevich
Locations: Madrid (5), Maison de la Mutualité, Paris (2, 4, 7), Musikhalle, Hamburg (6),
Wembley Town Hall, London (1, 3)
Dates: 1-2 Nov. 1956 (7), 18 Dec. 1957 (2), 2-3 May 1959 (4), 15 Feb. 1960 (6),
1 Nov. 1963 (1), 31 Dec. 1966 (5), 16-18 Oct. 1967 (3)
EMI CLASSICS CZS 5 75124 2 [2 CDs: 77’ 49", 74’ 50"]


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One of the oddities I noted when I came to live in Italy in the mid-1970s was that a number of conductors who had made recordings regularly in the 1950s and 1960s and then faded out of both the recording scene and the London concert round, with the result that I had vaguely supposed them dead or retired, were still going strong here. One such was Lovro von Matačič, another was Peter Maag, while a third was Igor Markevich. (A decade later some of these started coming back to London at least occasionally).

My first encounter with Markevich was not a happy one. I turned on the radio to hear a broadcast from Rome of Schubert’s 5th Symphony which was so brutally rammed through in three of its movements, and with a fat, beefy account of the slow movement, as to make me see absolutely red. In an interval chat the conductor, who turned out to be Markevich, explained how he loved Schubert and always felt purified after conducting his music. He then went on to praise the collaboration of the orchestra and to explain how interesting it had been for all of them to find solutions to the many problems of balance and articulation presented by Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. He was right about the problems, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a performance which more dismally failed to solve them than the heavy, noisy affair that followed. What an old humbug, I thought.

I learnt only later that Markevich had by then developed problems of hearing. Alan Sanders’s fair and thorough notes to this issue suggest that he conducted only rarely from this time on, but I think Sanders is perhaps misled by his virtual disappearance from London. It seems to me that he continued to conduct the Italian Radio orchestras pretty regularly until his death in 1983, but perhaps he was unwise to do so in view of his problem.

What I also learnt later was that Markevich was not to be so easily dismissed, as I found when I bought one of his Tchaikovsky symphonies on a mid-price LP – and went straight out to buy all the others, including the Manfred included here. This Tchaikovsky cycle has rarely been out of the catalogue; in spite of controversial aspects to no. 4 (slow, with some wilful touches) there are many reasons for considering it the most successful cycle ever, on a par with the famous Mravinsky versions of nos. 4-6. Another discovery was the Philharmonia "Rite of Spring" (actually his second recording), a performance whose barbaric savagery has always placed it near the top of the list.

What impresses so mightily about Markevich’s Tchaikovsky is the way in which he draws from the LSO a style of playing so close to that of the Russian orchestras themselves. In place of the generally relaxed, well-balanced sound that the London orchestras tend to produce if not strictly requested otherwise, there is an almost rasping attack from the strings and a feeling that the wind and brass are pushing to the very limit beyond which overblowing would begin. The performance of Manfred has a hypnotic tension which is maintained even in the softer moments, which are intensely expressive but never soft or yielding. Listen to the start of the finale to hear what savagery is being unleashed.

Though Markevich recorded extensively and covered quite a wide range of non-Russian repertoire (stretching back to a motet by Victoria), the results were more controversial. Markevich was in fact an extremely enigmatic figure, so before going any further perhaps it is time to outline his career.

Though his interpretations of Russian music seem so intensely Russian, very little of his life was actually spent in that country. He was born in 1912 into a family of wealthy landowners with a musical tradition who fled Russia on the outbreak of the First World War, and his formative years were spent in France and Switzerland. He studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and piano with Cortot and rapidly achieved fame as a composer. Since Markevich’s music has been scarcely heard since the Second World War (though it can now be heard on some Marco Polo CDs) it is difficult for us to realise now just what an impact he made, being hailed as "the Second Igor", to the intense annoyance of the first Igor (Stravinsky). He occasionally appeared as a pianist in his own works and took a few conducting lessons from Pierre Monteux and Hermann Scherchen in order to conduct his own music, which he did for the first time in 1937.

It is not unknown for a composer to turn to conducting and gradually let his creative energies subside. Many conductors have reached the rostrum as interpreters of their early efforts at composition, and then gone wholeheartedly and completely into conducting (Sargent, for instance). The enigma of Markevich is that his two careers were consecutive and virtually unrelated. During the war he was stranded in Italy as a stateless person and something which we will never fully know happened to him. The war experiences must have shocked him deeply, he also had a serious illness, and at about this time his marriage broke up. His second wife was an Italian aristocrat and landowner and he became an Italian citizen.

The Markevich who emerged from the Second World War was a conductor. He discouraged performances of his compositions (Sanders says he suppressed them, but Bernstein conducted "Icare" in 1958) which were quickly forgotten. How many of his audiences even knew he was, or had been, a composer? His first work was to rebuild the orchestra of the "Maggio Fiorentino" and he also showed his many-sidedness by writing a book called "Made in Italy". These were the years of the Marshall Plan and criticism had been made by the United States that the Italians were not lapping up their handouts as gratefully as they ought to be. Markevich’s book, which is highly readable and shows a remarkable insight into the Italian character, was intended to forestall these criticisms by explaining how the Italian psyche worked. His career in the 1950s and 1960s is well-known. He also taught conducting and a trawl through Internet in search of background information revealed that a quite extraordinary number of conductors, many very well-known, have "studied with Markevich" in their CVs. Although not noted especially for his Beethoven, in later years he became interested in the textual and performing problems of his symphonies and produced an analytical, annotated edition of them, "Edition Encyclopédique des Neuf Symphonies". His brother Dmitri was a cellist whose Carnegie Hall performance of all six Bach Suites was claimed as the first time these works had been performed at a single concert and his son Oleg Caetani (he prefers to use his mother’s maiden name) is no mean conductor.

So there were practically two Igor Markevichs, and it was recently suggested that there might have been a third. In 1999 his name hit the headlines of the Italian press and found itself on the lips of people who had never been to a classical concert in their lives. Italy is a great country for unsolved political mysteries. Just to list a few that were widely reported around the world, we do not know who set off the bomb in Milan’s Piazza Fontana, we do not know who blew up a train at Bologna station, we do not know if the passenger plane that fell into the sea at Ustica was shot, bombed or just faulty; we do know the names (or most of them) of those who materially kidnapped, imprisoned and assassinated ex-Prime Minister Aldo Moro but the shadowy Red Brigades movement above them has remained impenetrable. We are talking of events that took place at least a quarter of a century ago and still today new "revelations" turn up, even fruitless attempts at trying a few people (quite recently the alleged Bologna bombers were acquitted in court). And over all this, speculation and vague hints from "informed sources" have suggested that the whole campaign of terror was commanded and organised by some "Grand Old Man", some citizen above suspicion, well-known in the artistic or political world. And in 1999 a "repentant" terrorist, in the mood for "revelations", "revealed" (I am using inverted commas most carefully) that Markevich was, if not the "Grand Old Man" himself, a key figure in the organisation, and that the Red Brigade Headquarters during the Moro kidnapping were none other than Markevich’s house in Florence. The matter rumbled on in the press for some time and the Italian Parliamentary Commission for Investigating Terrorism took it seriously enough to ask the police and judicial authorities for information. Then, having thoroughly tainted Markevich’s reputation, the matter was dropped from the press (but the investigation continues so the matter may erupt yet again) and Italy had another mystery in its cupboard.

Now, Italy is a country whose Constitution and judiciary uphold – if grudgingly and imperfectly – the principle of the presumption of innocence and so we must concede that the most likely solution is that this was a final act of ingratitude on the part of Italy towards a man who had done much for his adopted country. At the same time, we can say, though this does not prove anything, that chronologically the thing is at least possible. Markevich was involved during the war in the Partisan movement. Officially this was dedicated to resisting the German invaders and there were certainly acts of genuine heroism carried out by Partisans. Many of Italy’s post-war politicians and intellectuals derived from this movement. But there was another side to its operations. A goodly number of Partisans were confirmed socialists who were prepared to leave the Germans to the Allies and concentrate on bumping off their perceived enemies of the future, their colleagues who held more liberal-democrat, or Catholic opinions. So the Red Brigades also had their roots in the partisan movement. But surely a man whose family had fled the Soviets would not have sided with the Marxists? Well, Aldo Moro’s strategy of a "historical compromise" with the Communists was detested by the extreme left because it aimed at watering the Communists down into virtual social-democrats, but also by the Americans because it would have brought the Communists into the State institutions and so perpetuated them. Moro was "persona non grata" to both sides and there have been suggestions that they combined to get rid of him. Markevich’s involvement remains purely hypothetical, but is not actually impossible or even, from a certain point of view, illogical.

If I have raised this, it is because I would like to look at the psychological angle. Music is, after all, an art about love, about compassion, about religion, about humanity. Would it be possible to make music with one hand and throw bombs with the other? Well, it might depend on the nature of the music-making. To take another case, the son of Gianandrea Gavazzeni became involved with the Red Brigades, to the deep distress of his father when it became known. Now, if anyone tried to suggest (nobody ever has) that Gavazzeni knew and encouraged his son’s activity, I would say that a person who could conduct Verdi and Puccini with such a sense of humanity could not at the same time plot bombings and kidnappings. About Markevich’s cold savagery I am not so sure. I don’t offer this as proof. I only say that, if proof did come to light, it would not be incompatible with the contents of these CDs.

All the works on the second CD are interpreted with an almost fanatical tension. I found I had to take a rest from time to time, refreshing myself with reminders of other conductors’ performances. One common characteristic seems to be that Markevich’s idea of balancing an orchestra seems to be not so much that of blending the instruments as pitting them against each other. Take "La Mer". It’s a restless, angry sea, and a close up recording to boot. Enthralling but oppressive. Chabrier’s innocent little piece is all fire and brilliance, but Ataulfo Argenta (for one) showed that it can smile, too. It is hard to believe that Markevich’s "Daphnis" is only about 30 seconds shorter than Sir Adrian Boult’s apparently leisurely traversal. It just shows that speed has little to do with it. While at each stage in the sunrise Boult seems to admire the view, lost in wonder at its beauty, Markevich gives the idea that he has to push the sun up himself, single-handed. Again, enthralling but exhausting. The closeness of Debussy and Ravel to early Stravinsky has certainly never been made more obvious.

Compared with Konwitschny’s loveable rogue of a Till (Supraphon), Markevich sides with the prankster’s enemies. The hapless creature is hounded, hunted, goaded and finally machine-gunned down in a deafening onslaught (interestingly, Markevich is slower overall than Konwitschny). Extraordinary, and worth hearing – the live recordings are fair – but give me Konwitschny every time. Whether or not this is how a terrorist conducted Till, one can imagine that this is how a terrorist would conduct it.

As sometimes happens with this series, the choice of repertoire does not give an ideally rounded picture. The Glinka pieces (amounting to almost 24 minutes) tell us nothing about Markevich’s conducting of Russian music which the Tchaikovsky does not tell us better, and the music is not particularly distinguished out of context. High claims have been made for Markevich’s Mozart, and he was praised in Haydn. (An Italian critic once claimed that the great Mozart conductors were Beecham, Walter, Markevich, Perlea and Zecchi: now that’s what I call sticking your neck out). I also remember a broadcast of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony shortly before his death which concluded (I tuned in at the end, alas) with a remarkable serenity, so perhaps the inner tensions which inform his conducting throughout these two discs were resolved at last. One of his pre-war recordings of his own music would also have been interesting.

Conclusions: the Tchaikovsky is an essential document. The other performances offer interesting slants on well-known pieces.

Christopher Howell


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