Igor Markevitch – Volume 1
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 [24:10]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 103 in E flat major (“Drum Roll”) [25:27]
Symphony No. 104 in D major (“London”) [23:47]
Nikolay RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade, Op. 25 [42:36]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 (“The Inextinguishable”) [32:49]
Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux, Paris (Beethoven/Haydn)
London Symphony Orchestra (Rimsky-K)
Royal Danish Orchestra (Nielsen)
rec. 1959-61 (Beethoven/Haydn), 1962 (Rimsky-K), 1965 (Nielsen), unspecified locations
DOREMI DHR-8077/8 [73:24 + 75:25]
This double-disc set will likely have great appeal to admirers of Ukrainian conductor/composer Igor Markevitch (1912-1983), though it will probably have limited interest for most others. The transfers by Jacob Harnoy, Doremi founder, and Clive Allen are certainly fine enough but the masters were not necessarily the best to begin with. The recording of the Nielsen Fourth Symphony with Royal Danish Orchestra from 1965, which ironically is the most recent of all the items here and the only one not deriving from Philips’ masters—it comes from the Danish label Fona—is below standards of the time: strings in the higher ranges have a shrill sound and the brass often have a tinny quality, not unlike some Melodiya recordings from the 1950s and early 1960s. The other works all exhibit reasonably decent to quite good sonic quality. The most consistent and impressive aspects in all five works, however, are the interpretations of the conductor.
The Beethoven First Symphony is well phrased, each movement played with spirit and with moderate to slightly brisk tempos. The Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux, Paris, now known simply as Orchestre Lamoureux, performs quite well for Markevitch who was Principal Conductor of the ensemble from 1957-61. They play with a sort of robust elegance and offer a performance nearly competitive with the best. My one quibble, however, is that the string articulation in the finale could be a bit clearer in certain passages. There are so many great Beethoven Firsts, including from Jansons, Abbado, Thielemann, Szell and Toscanini, and while this one may not challenge the best, it’s still quite fine. The sound reproduction is reasonably good for its time (1959-61), though there is some background rumble.
The Haydn symphonies come across with much the same spirited and driven quality. The “Drumroll” Symphony is very well shaped by Markevitch in each of the four movements and features an absolutely brilliant performance of the finale. I could write ditto for the “London” as well, as everything is well conceived and executed and topped off with a finale that brims with energy and sunlight in its quick pacing, the orchestra scampering, but gracefully, to keep up. Recorded in the same time frame as the Beethoven, both Haydn symphonies sound quite fine, but with slightly greater presence, especially for the strings, and a bit less rumble. Again, comparisons with the plentiful competition may not reveal these to be among the very best, but both performances are not far from the top. Moreover, as Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica have shown, you don’t need a big-name orchestra to play these symphonies well.
Probably the best performance of the five works here is that of Scheherazade, from 1962. The London Symphony Orchestra plays quite impressively and Markevitch phrases the music to capture all its shifting moods, its exotic colors and its brilliant orchestration. He does so with proper instrumental balances, a subtle grasp of dynamics and tempos that are often on the brisk side. Markevitch tends not to linger over some of the more lush lyrical themes, though nothing ever comes across as insensitive or rushed. There is less background noise in this transfer too and Markevitch is aided by excellent sound reproduction, from 1962. True, at that time recording engineers often gave certain instruments in solo passages greater prominence—a boost in volume, but that’s not much of a factor here. Markevitch has the advantage of Erich Gruenberg playing the violin solos, and his performance throughout is impressive. He isn’t overmiked to any perceptible degree, but fits in well into the sound field. The finale, the most dramatic movement of the four and really a sort of summation of the other movements, comes across with real impact in this account, as the building tensions throughout create excitement and suspense and the climax is powerful. Among the great recordings of this work, one still thinks of Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as the reference performance, but this one by Markevitch and the LSO is nearly as fine.
And now for the one disappointment, but it’s by no means a complete disappointment… As mentioned at the outset, the sound reproduction in the Nielsen Fourth Symphony is problematic, to say the least, largely because of the shrillness and chintzy brass sonics. Moreover, the Royal Danish Orchestra has a scrawny string sound, as if their number is smaller than what is needed for the score. Yet, that couldn’t have been the case since other conductors were recording with this orchestra at or around this time with fine sonic results. Bernstein did the Nielsen Third with them for Columbia in 1965, precisely the same year, and the sound of the orchestra was quite fine. So, while the sonics in Markevitch’s Nielsen Fourth are not so good, his interpretation is excellent, each of the four movements, well-conceived and executed: he develops the intensity necessary to impart the feeling of conflict in the opening panel; he conveys the pastoral serenity in the second movement convincingly; and in the last two he effectively captures the continuing sense of struggle and then brings on the spirit of triumph when the first movement main theme finally returns to be heard in its complete form for only the second time in the symphony. Of the dozen or so Nielsen Fourths in my collection (which includes this performance on a Turnabout LP from many years ago), this would be interpretively perhaps just behind the best, which would include Bernstein and Oramo (BIS). But sonically this Markevitch account would land at or near the bottom. Still, the recording is listenable and probably adequate enough to represent the conductor’s view of this great symphony.
So there you have it. There’s much here to enjoy, but Markevitch fans are the primary audience. Still, anyone unfamiliar with his work and wanting to explore it will find these performances an excellent introduction. Since this is volume 1 in the series, presumably more—maybe much more—will be coming. Despite my reservations, I eagerly await what’s ahead.