Igor MARKEVITCH (1912 – 1983)
Partita (1931) [18:03]
Le Paradis Perdu (1933/4) [57:34]
Martijn van den Hoek (piano); Lucy Shelton (soprano); Sarah Walker (mezzo); Jon Garrison (tenor)
Netherlands Concert Choir; Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
rec. Musis Sacrum, Arnhem, The Netherlands, 20-21 June 1997 (Partita) and (live) Musis Sacrum, Arnhem, 10 March 1999 and Concertzaal de Vereniging, Nijmegen, 11 March 1999 and studio corrections at the Concertzaal, Nijmegen, 12 March 1999 (Le Paradis Perdu)
NAXOS 8.570773 [75:37]

Several years ago Marco Polo launched what I consider as a brave venture in recording the complete orchestral works by Igor Markevitch. This project was then enthusiastically master-minded by Christopher Lyndon-Gee who obviously devoted much time and energy in bringing it to fruition. However, after having collected all the different volumes issued then I realised that two works were missing: the Partita for piano and orchestra and – more importantly – the oratorio Le Paradis Perdu that many regard as Markevitch’s magnum opus. It appears that the Partita was recorded at about the same time as the other volumes whereas the oratorio had to wait for a couple of years. These are now released as Volume 1 while the other volumes are now re-issued under Naxos.

The Partita of 1931 is in fact Markevitch’s second piano concerto, the other one being simply titled Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. It is in three fairly concise movements displaying the composer’s Neo-classical writing, at least in the outer movements titled Ouverture and Rondo respectively. The Ouverture is a brilliant Toccata propelled by lively, often capricious rhythms. It is followed by a somewhat longer and definitely more personal Choral. One may remark that the central movement of the earlier piano concerto was also the more searching and personal of the work. The Partita is rounded off by a lively, energetic Rondo in much the same vein as the first movement. What comes clearly through here – as in much else in Markevitch’s music – is the technical assurance that the music displays, although one might be forgiven for hearing various contemporary influences such as that of Stravinsky and Hindemith for example. The Partita, however, is a remarkable achievement in its own right.

The oratorio Le Paradis Perdu (“Paradise Lost”) is undoubtedly Markevitch’s most ambitious work. La Taille de l’Homme should have outsized it but the composer completed the first part only – this nevertheless plays for some fifty minutes. The oratorio falls into two sizeable parts and is scored for soprano (Eve), mezzo-soprano (La Vie) and tenor (Satan), chorus and orchestra. One might think that the libretto is based on Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’; but, as Christopher Lyndon-Gee remarks in his thoroughly researched and well-informed insert notes, this is rather far from the truth although the score proudly states “after Milton, assembled and translated by Igor Markevitch”. I will not go into details about the discrepancies between the composer’s libretto and Milton’s poem. First, I do not know Milton’s poem enough (a euphemism on my part indeed). Second, Lyndon-Gee goes into considerable details about the composer’s arrangement and anyone is best referred to his excellent notes. Let me however note that some phrases such as “stupide épouvantail” (“foolish scarecrow”) referring to Eve or “quelle proie facile” (“what easy prey”) referring to Man as well as Eve’s words opening the second part (“My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) do not certainly come from Milton! The way, too, in which the second part develops to achieve redemption is a bit too contrived to be entirely satisfying and in accord with Milton’s own vision. Next comes the music. It is often quite imaginatively done. The opening section – Eve’s first long solo – is underpinned by a simple but highly effective ostinato swelling up and from short-lived climaxes. This is followed by a rather long section in which the chorus depicts Man’s birth, at times briefly relying on choeur parlé. After a short aria by the mezzo-soprano comes Satan’s violent, angular aria in which he expresses his fears and hatred for Man who he feels might be a menace for him. He swears to destroy Man and any creature. The chorus then implores “good and powerful spirits” to protect those innocent human souls. Satan threatens to haunt Man’s nights and dreams. Further questionings from the chorus lead to Eve’s temptation, Satan encouraging her to eat the apple while the chorus warns her not to do so. The first part ends with a confrontation between Life and Satan. The second part opens with Eve’s aria (“My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”). The second part is mostly about redemption achieved through Love and “the Spirit”, whatever Markevitch might have had in mind; and ends in gloriously blazing light. As already mentioned the music is often quite imaginative but, again, one may reasonably spot a number of influences such as that of Stravinsky and – at times – that of Honegger and of Frank Martin (to my ears at least), and none the worse for that. Le Paradis Perdu is an imposing, ambitious work but not without flaws. The writing for voices is not particularly distinctive and it must not be easy to make sense of some of it mainly because Markevitch’s ‘translation’ is at times rather verbose. It is nevertheless quite nice to be able to hear it under good conditions although the recording made in two different venues and, therefore, acoustics does not entirely succeeds in bringing out some of this score’s felicities. The recording, too, does not serve the voices too well so that soloists and chorus often sound rather recessed. This is obviously the kind of work that would have greatly benefited from a properly balanced studio recording. All concerned, however, Naxos deserve one’s gratitude for bringing such an important work back to live.

Hubert Culot