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Igor MARKEVITCH (1912 – 1983)
Piano Concerto (1929)a
Cantate (1929/30)b
Icare (1932, rev. 1943)
Martijn van den Hoek (piano)a; Nienke Oostenrijk (soprano)b; Men’s voices of the Nederlands Concertkoorb;
Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
Recorded: Musis Sacrum, Arnhem, April 1998 (Piano Concerto, Cantate) and April 1999 (Icare)
MARCO POLO 8.225076 [65:40]


Although I have long admired Markevitch the conductor and was aware of his considerable, if underrated achievement as a composer, I had never heard any of his music before.

These pieces were written between the ages of 17 and 20. The most remarkable thing about them is their maturity, their technical assurance and the highly personal stance that emerges from these youthful, though in no way prentice works. Both the Piano Concerto and Cantate often betray the composer’s admiration for Hindemith, and – more than once – nod towards Bartók and Prokofiev. They nevertheless display a good deal of highly personal musical thinking. The slow sections, however, are the most personal in feeling and expression. The slow movement of the Piano Concerto is a really beautiful piece of music, while the outer movements are more overtly indebted to Hindemith’s Motorik, without ever slavishly imitating it. All in all, the Piano Concerto is a splendid piece of music that does not pale in comparison with, say, Prokofiev’s First and Third Concertos. It is a remarkable achievement in its own right, and it often reminds me of another, long-forgotten though highly accomplished piano concerto by another musical prodigy: Constant Lambert’s Piano Concerto of 1924 (now available on ASV WHL 2122).

After the successful premiere of the Piano Concerto, Diaghilev discussed with Markevitch a new commission for a ballet L’Habit du Roi. The composer set to work immediately, but the project came to nothing due to Diaghilev’s death. Markevitch, however, was willing to rescue some of the music already composed for the ballet, and asked Cocteau to write a text for a cantata. Cocteau had to tailor his poem to the existing music, but the end result is quite impressive. As Christopher Lyndon-Gee remarks in his detailed and well-documented notes, parts of the poem (fairly clearly so in the second movement) seem to deal with the Icarus myth which Markevitch could perhaps understand as having a particular connection with his own personal situation. (He later wrote L’Envol d’Icare reworked in 1942 as Icare heard here.)

A substantial work in four movements, Cantate is set for soprano, men’s chorus and orchestra. The first movement Allegro risoluto opens as a brilliant, energetic Toccata à la Hindemith. The chorus enters forcefully. In the central section, the soprano sings in animated florid phrases leading to a restatement of the opening material. As already mentioned earlier in this review, the slow movements are generally more searching, more personal. That of the cantata is again no exception. The soprano has the lion’s share in what is almost an accompanied aria in which the chorus has a rather secondary, though in no way negligible role. The third movement, another Allegro risoluto, functions as a Scherzo of some sort and is – stylistically speaking – quite similar to the first movement. (This may have been the "crazy fugue" mentioned to Diaghilev à propos the projected ballet.) The cantata is capped by a short, hieratic Chorale.

Markevitch’s ballet for Serge Lifar, L’Envol d’Icare (available on Marco Polo 8.223666) met with considerable critical acclaim. It was one of Markevitch’s most radical scores in which he used quarter-tones. Performances at the 1937 Venice Biennale and later in Brussels were far from satisfactory. Players then did not fully master some of the technical innovations in the music. This probably led the composer to rework his piece. At first, he planned to revise the earlier score (this was in 1942-1943), but soon dropped the idea. He rather re-scored the whole thing for standard orchestra and traditional playing techniques. In a letter of 1944, Markevitch suggested that it would be a good idea to play L’Envol d’Icare and Icare in the same concert. This, however, has never been done, but is now possible since both pieces are currently available on disc. I have not heard L’Envol d’Icare, so that I am not in a position to comment on the respective merits of each version. Suffice to say that the 1943 version is a quite beautiful score, entirely satisfying.

This is the sixth volume in Marco Polo’s Markevitch series. This series, as a whole, is a brave and enterprising venture that deserves the warmest recommendation. In spite of his voluntarily short composing career, Markevitch was a most distinguished composer who could have played an important part in the history of the 20th Century music. His music was admired by his contemporaries such as Sauguet, Milhaud and Bartók, later reluctantly joined by Stravinsky who had obviously clearly perceived that "Igor the Second" might have become a serious competitor. Christopher Lyndon-Gee put a great store of attention and commitment into these superb readings of unfamiliar, unjustly neglected works; and he received wonderful support from orchestra and soloists. I know now that I will have to looking out for the previous volumes of this series.

Hubert Culot

see also review by Rob Barnett

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