of the volume dedicated to Markevich in the “Great Conductors
of the Twentieth Century” series, I discussed a number of the
more enigmatic aspects of this unpredictable figure. I won’t repeat
these issues here except to remark that since I wrote that review
almost five years ago I haven’t seen any further speculation in
the Italian press about Markevich’s alleged involvement with Red
have recently been praising some Arts Archives issues of old
RAI recordings of Maag and Cluytens, official remasterings of
the original tapes, which in most cases proved to be excellent.
Here we are back to the old standard, with what sound like fading
tapes made from somebody’s AM set. The original tapes of the
1967 concert – if they survive, and they probably do – would
have been in stereo. Here we have crumbling mono with the dynamic
range severely compressed. The Brahms is very bad indeed, with
patches of wow and the slow movement a quarter of a tone flat.
This latter is divided between the records, although the total
timing of the Tchaikovsky and the Brahms is 79:10, so theoretically
this wasn’t necessary. On the other hand, if they had been squeezed
on this way I should have suspected Living Stage of speeding
up the last two movements to fit them on. As it is I have to
face the appalling fact that Markevich really did conduct them
cycle of the Tchaikovsky Symphonies plus Manfred with the LSO
(Philips) has rarely left the catalogue and many uphold it as
the finest ever. Reservations tend to centre on no.4 which,
in contrast to the fairly straight approach in the other works,
contains some quite severe agogic manipulations. The only real
interest in the present performance is to see whether, about
three years later and live, these same manipulations were present,
and to what degree. The answer is that the interpretation is
virtually identical. Identical, too, is the fierce, almost mesmerizing
intensity. I suppose that a MusicWeb critic who dared to suggest
that the LSO of the 1960s was a better orchestra than the RAI’s
Turin band would be accused of blinkered patriotism. All the
same, in matters of tuning, ensemble and balance things were,
shall we say, a shade tighter in the London studios. If the
Turin performance were to be issued in excellent sound – maybe
by Arts Archives – there would be some point in assessing whether
these things are counterbalanced by a gain in communication
as a result of playing before an audience.
didn’t really know what to expect of Markevich in Brahms. He
begins remarkably slowly. The recording is so muddy that I’d
have to listen several times on headphones to work out what
happened, but things get out of phase during the opening paragraph
and the orchestra is in poor form throughout. Quite soon the
conductor whips up the tempo and most of the movement goes at
a fair lick, slowing down radically every time the opening theme
returns. The coda is subjected to a hysterical accelerando.
Not many conductors hold firm here but this is extreme. There
is the familiar Markevich tension to it all, but Brahms’s more
gracious aspects are rigorously expunged.
next movement is quite broad, though in view of the flat pitch
we must remember that Markevich’s actual tempo was a shade faster.
Again he is pretty free about changing the tempo and communicates
to this point the performance has at least been interesting.
The Scherzo is incredibly fast, but not with the sort of buoyant
exaltation with which Toscanini might have justified such a
tempo. Markevich seems possessed with a sort of blind rage,
as though he hates this music and wants to smash it to smithereens
and to go on smashing it even after it’s quite dead.
finale starts pretty briskly. He doesn’t broaden much for the
flute melody, but slows down for the chorale that follows it.
Then the allegro resumes and now its more blind fury, smash,
bang, wallop from here to the end. It’s the most disorienting
performance I’ve ever heard. Whatever the truth about Markevich’s
supposed terrorist associations, performances like this do nothing
to dispel the suspicion.
haven’t heard Markevich’s studio recording of this symphony,
made for DG with the Lamoureux orchestra. I presume it is at
least technically on another plane.
remember reading an interview with Markevich in an Italian magazine
in the late 1970s where he expressed great enthusiasm for Mahler
and hoped to be able to record a cycle of his symphonies. He
never did and this is the one work in the compilation of which
he did not leave a commercial recording. The present performance,
despite one lapse, suggests that such a cycle would have been
equal to the finest.
is clear from the beginning where all the rehearsal time went.
I don’t think I have ever heard a performance which reveals
such a fanatical dedication to the precise realization of every
marking in the score. One often gets the idea, as the various
tenuto markings, verbal instructions and glissandos, as well
as the range of dynamic markings, slip by with token recognition
from the conductor, that Mahler really just wanted to give a
general idea of how he wanted the music performed. Such a myriad
of markings can appear simply unrealizable. Either that or its
realization would turn into a finicky exercise and get in the
way of the actual message of the music.
have to say that Markevich proves all this to be wrong. In view
of the quality of the orchestra I can only describe the precision
with which every dot, accent, dynamic marking or written instruction
is observed as miraculous. Of particular interest are the string
glissandos, where most conductors shrug and look the other way.
The trio of the second movement is a revelation, just by playing
what Mahler asked for. Markevich’s literal observation of Mahler’s
requests in the second lyrical interlude of the finale to get
slower, then slower, then slower still, means that this movement
has an enormously wide range of speeds.
I emphasize that this is not just an academic exercise. Markevich
is concerned with the meaning of the markings; not with just
doing them. It is not a schmaltzy, old-world-Vienna sort of
reading, it is often brisk and bracing, yet the evocations of
nature are magically done. The “café-music” in the third movement
is unforgettably sleazy. The tender yearning of the song-episode
in this same movement brings out an unsuspected side of Markevich,
as do the lyrical episodes in the finale. I was so enthralled
by all this that I almost forgot how limited the recording is.
… my mind is still boggling. How can a conductor get everything
so wonderfully right until about two minutes before the end,
and then make that same niggling little cut that also disfigures
Paul Kletzki’s two recordings? In the case of Markevich the
compensations are much greater and I feel that in spite of this
blot on his copybook this performance deserves to be heard in
better sound. Since I am convinced that good stereo tapes exist
I can only leave readers to decide for themselves whether there
is any point in getting the Living Stage album as a stopgap
until someone like Arts Archives issues it properly.
is non-existent, just track timings and dates and no more, and
Living Stage seem unaware that Markevich’s name was normally
transliterated – presumably at his wish – as I have written
it and not Markevitch.