Marco Polo released seven volumes in their series of orchestral works by Igor Markevitch, and these are currently being re-released on Naxos. The first volume in the Naxos series, however, contains the two works that got away from the original Marco Polo cycle, and this disc is as such essential to anyone who followed the original series. Now, Igor Markevitch's fame is still due to his work as a conductor - indeed as one of the most remarkable conductors in the twentieth century. But these releases of his orchestral music, should - if there is any justice - fill out that picture significantly. Indeed, I don't think I am exaggerating when claiming that this series reveals him as one of the most remarkable composers of the twentieth century as well. Markevitch is not merely a conductor who also composed (in the derivative but usually well-crafted manner typical of most conductor-composers); Markevitch's music is highly original, spectacularly enjoyable, and always fresh and bold. Indeed, Markevitch is perhaps the most convincing representative of Russian futurism (Prokofiev's forays into the genre perhaps excepted); even so, I readily admit that the stylistic range is rather limited, and one can perhaps understand why he gave up composing so early instead of continuing to write the same pieces over and over (despite admiration from the likes of Britten, Stravinsky, Milhaud and Bartok). Still, we should be truly grateful for having this remarkable body of music, and also be grateful to the Arnhem Philharmonic, Christopher Lyndon-Gee and Marco Polo/Naxos for making it available in more than acceptable - often superb - performances.
The partita for piano and orchestra was recorded at the same time the rest of the series was recorded, but the oratorio Le Paradis Perdu was recorded at a somewhat later time. The Partita dates from 1931 and was Markevitch's second concertante work for piano and orchestra. It is a tautly argued work, often neo-classical in feel, superbly scored and full of remarkable colors, textures and rhythmic figurations. The opening Ouverture is a propulsive, impulsive movement, full of unbridled energy and generally divertive character. The more substantial Choral movement is pensive and personal but somewhat meandering, while the final Rondo seems to take its cue from the first movement and is a buoyant and energetic movement. It is a rather remarkable work, somewhat reminiscent of Stravinsky but already thoroughly personal.
The oratorio Le Paradis Perdu (Paradise Lost - but it is relatively far away from Milton's work) for soprano, mezzo, tenor, chorus and orchestra is (at least close to) a masterpiece, however. It is an ambitious work in two parts deploying a wide range of techniques and displaying a wide range of imagination. The first part opens with a solo for Eve, the soprano, set against a gradually swelling ostinati backdrop (and some brief climactic outbursts), that leads to a longer, and excellent, somewhat primal sounding choral part depicting the birth of man. The sky darkens with the entrance of Satan, and the music becomes darkly troubled and conflict-filled (some excellent choral writing again) and the section ends with a conflict between Satan and Life. The second part concerns redemption and is a thoroughly imaginative, inventive section working its way to a glorious culmination.
It is a spectacular work that demands to be heard by anyone remotely interested in twentieth century music. It is, perhaps, not without its faults, and the orchestral writing is certainly more impressive than the writing for the soloists, but it is certainly not far away from being a towering masterpiece (perhaps somewhat reminiscent of Honegger's oratorios). The performances are excellent, and the Arnhem Philharmonic continues to impress as they have throughout the series. The chorus and soloists are good as well, but unfortunately placed a little too far back in the sound picture (Martijn van den Hoek's piano in the Partita is far better balanced) - indeed, the sound is not really top-notch, being at times a littly blurry as well. In short, while there are admittedly a couple of caveats, the release is overall a well neigh essential acquisition. Truly impressive.