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Igor Markevitch - Volume 1 Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op.21 (1800) [24:10] Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 103 in E flat major (Drumroll) (1795) [25:27]
Symphony No. 104 in D major (London) (1795) [23:47] Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade: Symphonic Suite, Op.35 (1888) [42:36] Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 4, Op.29 – The Inextinguishable (1916) [32:49]
Lamoureux Orchestra (Beethoven, Haydn)
London Symphony Orchestra (Rimsky-Korsakov)
Royal Danish Orchestra (Nielsen)
rec. 1959-61 (Beethoven, Haydn); 20-22 October 1962 (Rimsky-Korsakov4); 1965 (Nielsen) DOREMI DHR8077/78 [73:30 + 75:20]
Markevitch has long been a favourite conductor of mine; incidentally, his own compositions are well worth exploring, too. Born in Kiev, he studied piano with Cortot and composition with Nadia Boulanger. When he was only seventeen, he was commissioned by Diaghilev to write a piano concerto. He was acclaimed as one of the leading composers of his time – even as “the second Igor”. Bartók described him as “the most striking personality in contemporary music”. Anyone who wants to try some of Markevitch's music should listen to L'envoi d'Icare or Rébus.
Anyway, excuse the digression – back to Markevitch the conductor, whose recordings of The Rite of Spring and the Tchaikovsky symphonies have retained their classic status over several decades.
The first piece here, a young man's first symphony, begins aggressively, but then I don't suppose Beethoven intended his bold opening to be played tentatively. Whether or not this might be too fierce for some tastes, it does set the tone for what is to come. Markevitch was generally forceful and incisive and of course, to state the obvious, this suits some music better than others. I think on balance Beethoven can well stand this approach, while Markevitch's typical clarity is also welcome. The remainder of the first movement is very robust, whereas the following movement, taken at a true “con moto”, is graceful, buoyant and as good-humoured as it should be. The scherzo is rhythmically alert, with Beethoven's off-beat sforzando accents razor-sharp. Markevitch does not make a meal of the introduction to the finale, which does not need to be as hammed-up as is sometimes the case. In the following Allegro molto e vivace the off-beat sforzandi are rugged, while the charm and lightness of the second subject (for those who doubt Markevitch's grasp of those qualities) are no less admirable. Altogether this is a strong and characterful performance. As for the
Lamoureux Orchestra, a less prestigious ensemble than many, they play with the discipline one would expect from this conductor. I must single out the timpanist, who, both here and in the Haydn, plays with great awareness of his important contributions without trying to steal the show.
One would not immediately link Markevitch with Haydn, but these two symphonies are strongly characterised. The performances date from sixty years ago, so the orchestral sound is on the weighty side, but nonetheless lean. As I implied earlier, Markevitch could never be accused of producing a bloated or luxurious orchestral sound. My main caveat would be the minuet tempo in each symphony. Anyone schooled in the Harnoncourt approach to Haydn (unsurpassed, I believe) may well miss his more bracing, athletic versions. Otherwise there is a great deal to enjoy in both these performances – no lack of energy, tension, exuberance or wit. Slow movements are never indulgent, while both finales are exuberant. There is a brief but lovely moment at the end of 103/1 where the clarinets make their characterful presence felt. It is sad that the distinctive national types, or schools, of wind and brass tone-quality (I'm thinking especially of the glorious Czech Philharmonic) are much less evident nowadays.
Scheherazade is one of those pieces which I can gladly avoid for ten years. I was looking forward to this interpretation, which turned out to be very characteristic. There is no sentimentality, no lingering, no milking or over-sensuousness. Markevitch's reading is very refreshing for these reasons – it's hard-edged, incisive and big-boned. It almost sounds like a different piece, which, for jaded listeners like myself - I played in it about fifty times too many - is very welcome. Gruenberg's solos and those of the principal wind are very fine indeed.
I have owned an LP of Markevitch's Nielsen Fourth Symphony for several decades and always wondered why it never appeared on CD. Perhaps it wasn't that good a performance or perhaps this was a case of miscasting. My addiction to Nielsen came later, so I couldn't honestly say I was in a position to judge when I bought it. I was delighted to see this reissue and any doubts about the quality of the performance proved to be unfounded. The recording is slightly fuzzy but not enough to soften its impact. Markevitch's grasp of the structure is sure and convincing, while his general approach is both robust and uplifting. Again, his typical strengths suit Nielsen very well. I have several outstanding CDs of Nielsen 4, but I would not want to be without this one.