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Igor Markevitch's renunciation of composition at the age of 29 in favour of a conducting career
remains a mystery, given the rapturous responses his youthful music inspired. The extraordinary
works on this disc are a case in point. The Sinfonietta is his first truly assured composition,
the Cinéma Overture transforms the Blue Danube waltz into a modernist mini-masterpiece, while
Le Nouvel Âge is one of his most intense, tightly constructed works, rich in polyrhythms and
brimming with mysticism. Lyndon-Gee 'conducts with an unflagging energy' (Fanfare).
Igor Markevitch was one of the great enigmas of 20th century music. Discovered as a composer by Diaghilev at age 16, he pursued this career with international success until 1942, when at age 29, he suffered a mysterious mental and physical breakdown. Afterwards, he turned to a conducting career, disavowing composition altogether. Was part of his dilemma the difference between being a man of contemplation as a composer and a man of action as a conductor? In the field of action, in 1943 he joined the Italian Partisans in fighting the Germans, acquitting himself notably. An interest in politics continued after the war, when Markevitch published a political treatise entitled Made in Italy, which was successful in Europe.
The war was a turning point for both Markevitch and other musicians. The composer-conductor Paul Kletzki also stopped composing for good during the war. Kletzki was Jewish, and lost both of his parents and his sister in the Holocaust. As far as composition went, Kletzki said the Nazis had taken his "spirit" away. But not only the war was a stress on Markevitch. He had lost his publishing contract with Schott, and his marriage to Nijinsky's daughter had disintegrated. The English literary critic Cyril Connolly noted in Enemies of Promise the tendency of some artists to experience mental illness around the age of 30. Markevitch's illness began toward the end of what he described in a letter as a "hard, hard winter" in 1942. I wonder if he had seasonal affective disorder, a condition in which the reaction to the cold, dark, and snow of winter can be the onset of depression. During his recuperation, Markevitch described himself as having been "dead between two lives." This certainly sounds like what we now would identify as clinical depression.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the works on this CD demonstrate that Markevitch was a composer of talent and distinction. The longest work is Le nouvel âge, a paean to the modern technological age. It originally was intended to have a vocal component, but its librettist, Edward James, put an end to that by trying to seduce Markevitch's wife. Its first movement, an Ouverture, recalls the Prokofiev of the Second and Third Symphonies and the Scythian Suite in its energetic and pounding rhythms. The subsequent Adagio and Hymne are pure Markevitch, with evocative wind writing in the former and the hint of what Markevitch called a "vulgar presence" in the latter.
The Sinfonietta was Markevitch's first success at age 16. His teacher, the great Nadia Boulanger, recently had presented an extensive analysis of Hindemith's Concerto for Orchestra. So, in the Sinfonietta, we find three fast movements filled with Hindemith-like harmonies. The last one also includes some brass writing that very closely emulates The Rite of Spring. As for the one slow movement, it is discernably influenced by the opening of Milhaud's The Creation of the World. The whole work is brilliantly orchestrated and, no matter what the influences, sounds like Markevitch.
The Cinéma-Ouverture was written when Markevitch was 19, although it did not receive its premiere until 1995, by the performers on this CD. Markevitch was greatly enamored of film as an art form, nearly accepting an offer to write film scores for Eisenstein. The Ouverture is a witty, artfully orchestrated piece, with parts for cimbalom and car horns. In the innovative treatment of the orchestra, one can hear the future brilliant interpreter of Berlioz. As a whole, the work reminds me somewhat of Malcolm Arnold, another composer who suffered from mental illness.
It remains for me to thank Christopher Lyndon-Gee for his explorations into Markevitch's aeuvre. Lyndon-Gee's recordings of Respighi and Shostakovich show him to be a sensitive and capable conductor, traits which are very much on display in his readings of Markevitch. The orchestral playing is competent and well manicured, if not brilliant. The conductor also has contributed extensive and revealing program notes to the album. The sound engineering, from 1995-96, is a little dim and boxy, but still is clear enough not to impede one's enjoyment of the music. For those who are interested in music between the World Wars and for those who have been seduced by Igor Markevitch in any of his guises, this CD is highly recommended. -- Fanfare, Dave Saemann, Jan-Feb 2010