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CD Reviews

Music Library Reviews: Igor Markevitch and Sir Edward Elgar

In this series, Classical 91.7's music librarian Chris Hathaway reviews new additions to our ever-growing CD library. This month, Chris reviews two new releases of works by Igor Markevitch and Sir Edward Elgar.

IGOR MARKEVITCH: Cantique d’amour (1936).  L’envol d’ Icare (Icarus’ Flight) (1932).  Concerto Grosso (1936).  Christopher Lyndon-Gee conducting the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.572153 (originally released as Marco Polo 8.223666).

The subject of composers who also conduct, or conductors who also compose, has crossed these pages several times; I daresay it will many times, as the work of musicians who began as creative musicians but evolved into performers (through the usual quirky combinations of seeming accident and economic necessity) is coming into greater focus.  Igor Markevitch, a renowned conductor and a teacher of conducting for many years, who died at 70 in 1983, began composing while still a boy.  When he was thirteen, a piano suite of his, Noces (Nuptials), came to the attention of Alfred Cortot, who offered to take the boy under his wing. At seventeen, he attracted the attention of ballet master Sergei Diaghilev (who had midwifed practically a whole generation of new works by Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel and many others). “I was his [Diaghilev’s] last discovery”, Markevitch told dance critic John Gruen in an interview in 1972.  After 1941, when he was 29, Markevitch seems not to have written another note of music—and some of his scores, mainly the large orchestral works, are quire imposing and full of challenges.  (He did respond favorably, in 1978, to a request for republication of all his works from David Drew of the London publishing firm of Boosey and Hawkes; in 1980, he made revisions of some of his orchestral scores from the 1930s for performances in Belgium.)

Markevitch began as a composer.  Early mentors like Pierre Monteux and Hermann Scherchen gave him lessons in conducting, which he saw—up to that time—as a task related to his own music.  In 1958, Markevitch stated that “there is music which needs to be heard before mine, and for which the need is more urgent.  Apart from that, if my works are good enough, they can wait; and if they cannot wait, it is pointless to play them”.  That’s a bit less severe than, say, George Szell’s categorical suppression of even his published compositions during his lifetime.  It is the attitude of a performer rather than of a composer.

When Markevitch heard Cantique d’amour (Hymn to Love) in 1980, he joked that there was too much “magic” in the score and that it sounded “too good”.  It was commissioned by Winnaretta Singer (Princesse de Polignac); between its premiere in Italy in 1937 and the time Markevitch heard it 43 years later, it was never performed.  It is a richly sensuous piece for large orchestra, strikingly original despite hints of the influences of Scriabin and Ravel.  The subtle and arresting integration of piano, celesta and vibraphone into the orchestral mix, while characteristic of much orchestral music of that time, is done in a uniquely personal way. 

L’envol d’Icare (Icarus’ Flight), an even earlier work and a Diaghilev commission, is the only one of the three pieces on this disc to have been recorded previously—by the composer, in what is said to be a very poorly-preserved 78rpm disc from 1938.  There is the common denominator that runs through all of Markevitch’s music—assured handling of large forces, use of special effects and chamber music-like sounds and textures within the framework of a large spread of possibilities.   Another common denominator in all of these pieces: the music is unmistakably tonal, but Markevitch is not afraid to use dissonance. 

The Concerto Grosso of 1936 is even more intriguing, with an opening Allegro con brio that almost sounds like Albert Roussel on drugs.  Markevitch never loses the listener’s attention.  The second movement, an Andante, begins with a flute solo and features some other wind solos within the orchestra.  The finale is even more energetic than the first movement.  This is compelling writing, with activity in every bar.

Christopher Lyndon-Gee, who also provides informative liner notes, provides capable and forceful leadership for the Dutch orchestra.  He has performed a valuable service in bringing this neglected music into sharper focus.


SIR EDWARD ELGAR: Violin Concerto in b minor, op. 61. Nikolaj Znaider, violin; with Sir Colin Davis conducting Staatskapelle Dresden.  RCA 60588.

Sir Edward Elgar Nikolaj ZnaiderThis is a recording of exceptional merit, both in terms of the deeply committed performance and from a technical standpoint.  Znaider and Davis bring an unusually deep level of commitment and collaboration to their work.  Sir Colin, who is now 82, still radiates youth and passion; his performances over his long career seem to have evolved to an unusually high level of clarity—of structure and the “big picture” of the work, as well as bringing often elusive details into bold relief.  The first movement almost sounds like an orchestral poem with violin obbligato.  This is not to say that the virtuoso element of this concerto is neglected—far from it!  This level of the conductor and soloist being of one mind is rare, especially in the recordings of today.  Znaider, in a note in the accompanying booklet, dedicates the recording to Davis; the conductor, who says that he first led performances of the Elgar concerto forty years ago with Yehudi Menuhin (who, as a teenager, recorded it with Elgar himself conducting), is equally overbrimming with praise for his younger colleague.  Sir Colin thinks that they have come up with something exceptional.  He is absolutely right.