One of the most prestigious and consequential revivals of unknown composers undertaken by the Marco Polo label in the 1990s was its series of seven discs devoted to Igor Markevitch. Best known as an expert conductor of Russian music, particularly that of Stravinsky, Markevitch abandoned composing after a lengthy illness in 1941-1942 apparently deprived him of his gift; he was only 30 and had more than 40 years left to him. Markevitch suppressed his output until near the very end of his conducting career, when he gradually began to revive it; this positive trend was interrupted by his death. Unlike most "conductors who compose," Markevitch's music does not have the orchestrally centered but emotionally distanced quality seen as typical; it is white hot, passionate, and stylistically radical for its era, a step forward from both Stravinsky and the French neo-classicism common to the time in which Markevitch was most active. The Marco Polo volumes have been unavailable for some time, and happily these are being reactivated in the regular, Naxos series, but with a twist: Naxos' Igor Markevitch: Complete Orchestral Works, Vol. 1, is a wholly new volume, containing two major Markevitch works that, for some reason, Marco didn't included in the first series, though as the recordings date from 1997-1999, were likely made for it but withheld.
The band is the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra under Christopher Lyndon-Gee, and the disc features Markevitch's pithy Partita for piano and orchestra (1931) and his enormous oratorio Le Paradis Perdu (Paradise Lost, 1933-1934). Naturally, there is a problem of balance listening straight through, given that Markevitch's tart, jazzy, and understated micro-concerto -- played winningly by pianist Martijn van den Hoek -- has to share pride of place with what is probably his most gigantic creation, but it makes for a full CD and demonstrates Markevitch's range. As a teenager, Igor Markevitch was the last composer employed by Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, so some elements within the Paris press tended to refer to Markevitch as a "little Stravinsky." This did not go down well with either Stravinsky or Markevitch and fueled a mutual enmity between the two that proved lasting. The Partita has a superficial resemblance to Stravinsky's Concerto for piano and winds, but it sounds just as much, if not more so, like Prokofiev, and is darker and more keen-edged than either composer, though the work remains just as listenable and compelling.
Le Paradis Perdu is a masterpiece; it is probably the most challenging, forward-looking, and consequential piece Markevitch wrote. The back cover blurb compares it to Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Persephone, but it resembles neither, especially not Persephone. The Stravinsky works are noted for their concision and classical balance; Le Paradis Perdu is a sprawling vision of almost Ivesian density and representing a completely individual harmonic voice. The part of Eve is so difficult you really need to have a soprano who can sing anything, and they have that in Lucy Shelton here; Jon Garrison's Lucifer is ingratiating, persuasive, and scheming. The wind writing in the first part of the work is positively unearthly, and in a rhythmic sense Le Paradis Perdu moves from an elastic lassitude to strident, "brutish" figures; the progression from one rhythmic identity to another is seamless, and one is left with the impression that this might be how Markevitch organized the piece, in addition to the action in his libretto, informed by consultation with both Jean Cocteau and Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, librettist of Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat.
The recording of Le Paradis Perdu is really very distant, perhaps to accommodate the huge swells of volume in the piece, but sometimes trying to pick out Garrison's eager tenor amid the thick texture of chorus and pounding percussion is a bit of a strain. Nevertheless, Le Paradis Perdu is such an expensive undertaking that one is grateful to have it at all, and the performance still manages to harness the breathtaking power of Markevitch's music. Those who collected the earlier series will want this volume to fill it out, whereas for those who missed Markevitch the first time around, Naxos' Igor Markevitch: Complete Orchestral Works, Vol. 1, should either serve as an enticement to obtain the remaining numbers of the series, or to answer the question of whether or not to continue. Anyone seriously interested in pre-World War II twentieth century music, though, really should hear Le Paradis Perdu at least one time.