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Igor Markevich in Italy
Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony no.4 in F minor op.36 [43:07]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony no.4 in E minor op.98 [35:54]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony no.1 in D major [44:55]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI/Igor Markevich
rec. 12 October 1959 (Brahms), 10 March 1967 (Tchaikovsky, Mahler), Turin
LIVING STAGE LS 1085 [65:59 + 58:09]


In my review 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 Brigade terrorism.

I 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 like this.

Markevich’s 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.

I 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.

The 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 considerable tension.

Up 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.

The 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.

I 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.

I 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.

It 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.

I 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.

But 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.

However … 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.

Presentation 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.

Christopher Howell 



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