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Joseph MARX (1882-1964)
Complete Orchestral Music - Volume 1
Symphonische Nachtmusik (Symphonic Night Music) (1922) [25:58]
Idylle - Concertino über die pastorale Quart (Concertino on the Pastoral Fourth) (1925) [14:49]
Eine Frühlingsmusik (Spring Music) (1925) [23:12]
Bochum Symphony Orchestra/Steven Sloane
rec. 2002, Maximilianpark, Hamm, Germany
NAXOS 8.573831 [64:20]

Complete Orchestral Music - Volume 2
Alt-Wiener Serenaden (1941-42) [18:14]
Partita in modo antico (version for string orchestra of Quartetto in modo antico) (1937-38, arr. 1941) [30:56]
Sinfonia in modo classico (version for string orchestra of Quartetto in modo classic) (1940-41, arr. 1944) [25:37]
Bochum Symphony Orchestra/Steven Sloane
rec. 2003, Stadhalle, Wuppertal, Germany
NAXOS 8.573832 [75:11]

In 2002 and 2003 the American conductor, Steven Sloane made three discs of music by Joseph Marx with the Bochum Symphony Orchestra of which he has been Generalmusikdirector since 1994 - he will vacate that post in 2021. The discs, which were first issued by ASV and which now gain a new lease of life with Naxos, comprised the present two plus a disc of orchestral songs, which I have not heard (review). My own experience of Marx’s music has been fairly limited up to now, though I have a recollection of hearing and enjoying some years ago his Romantic Piano Concerto in E major (review); so, I was keen to expand my knowledge of this composer.

As we learn in the notes accompanying these discs, Marx was a prominent figure in Viennese musical life for much of the twentieth century as a composer, teacher, author and critic. He was very much of the conservative persuasion; he was a vociferous opponent of the music of Schoenberg and his disciples. Instead, Marx, who was largely self-taught as a composer, was an admirer of the harmonic language of composers such as Debussy, Reger and Scriabin. He also greatly respected the music of the past. These two CDs show us two very different aspects of Marx’s output, with the impressionist side reflected in Vol 1 while we can hear Marx the Classicist in Vol 2.

The Natur-Trilogie comprises three large-scale movements for orchestra which, I suppose, might best be described as tone poems. Marx gave the pieces an overall title, which clearly showed that he intended them to form a trilogy but, due to their scale and complexity, the three pieces seem never to have achieved a performance together and languished in obscurity until not long before the present recording was made. Furthermore, the composer included optional cuts in the scores and these tended to be observed on the rare occasions that the pieces were performed. Thus, this recording is not only the first recording of the Trilogy but also, the authors of the booklet notes believe, the first chance to hear the Trilogy performed absolutely complete.

The Trilogy is a substantial work in every respect. Not only is it long but also it employs what sounds like a vast late-Romantic orchestra. The first movement, Symphonische Nachtmusik, was originally entitled Mondnacht. The music initially depicts a moonlit garden but this is a prelude to a substantial Rondo (from 7:11) which alternates lively episodes (the Rondo) interspersed with sumptuous slower passages. This Rondo, which accounts for much of the movement, depicts lovers dancing ecstatically in the garden at night. In the last few minutes of the piece the Rondo gives way seamlessly to a tranquil conclusion in which the garden is once more presented. The music is lush and opulent but it is also fastidiously scored by a composer who clearly understood how to write colourfully and effectively for a large number of instruments. However warm and Romantic the expression, I never felt that the music was cloying. Furthermore, in the quicker passages of the Rondo the scoring is often light, calling for great dexterity on the part of the orchestra, especially the strings and the woodwind.

The second movement, Idylle (Concertino über die pastorale Quart) is apparently something of an overt homage to Debussy and, more specifically, to the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. The notes suggest that the music paints “a picture of a misty southern European autumnal forest at daybreak.” I found the music delightful and very atmospheric. My ear was caught particularly by a light and felicitous melody which is played out over many bars by the violins (from 5:34). The last movement, Eine Frühlingsmusik is, like the opening movement, more than twenty minutes long. The piece opens joyfully and soon becomes a festal dance, full of vitality, celebrating the arrival of Spring. There are occasional dalliances with slower, rapturous music but for much of the time Marx is in celebratory, dancing mode. The piece ends in a big, exultant fashion.

People who like opulent, colourful late-Romantic orchestral music will find much to admire and enjoy here. And though Marx clearly wished the three movements to be played together – there are allusions to material from the first two movements in Eine Frühlingsmusik – I can’t see any reason why the individual movements can’t be enjoyed as standalone pieces. Hearing this disc has certainly whetted my appetite to hear Eine Herbstsymphonie, Marx’s magnum opus which was written just a few years earlier, It’s encouraging news that the first complete recording of that score has just appeared (review). The Naxos notes lead me to believe that the music is in a similar vein to that of Natur-Trilogie.

The music on the second of these discs is almost the polar opposite to Natur-Trilogie. The three scores that Steven Sloane offers as Volume 2 are much less opulently laid out. Berkant Haydin and Martin Rucker, the annotators for both discs, tell us that the works on the second disc reflect Marx’s response to the troubled times of the late 1930s and early 1940s. His response was a very interesting one. Where many composers of the time wrote music full of angst and downright distress, Marx took a different path. He chose to compose music that would reflect and preserve the values of music that had been written in the Classical and Renaissance eras. And he eschewed the large-scale, rich orchestral palette that had served him so well in the 1920s; indeed, two of the three works in question were arrangements for string orchestra of works originally conceived for that most intimate of musical ensembles: the string quartet.

Alt-Wiener Serenaden was dedicated to the Vienna Philharmonic on the occasion of the orchestra’s centenary. It was they who premiered it in 1942, conducted by Karl Böhm. According to the notes, the piece is for “large orchestra” (the forces are not specified) but the scoring is very restrained and refined: we could be listening to a chamber orchestra. As Messrs. Haydin and Rucker put it, the work is “a kind of compendium of typically ‘Austrian’ musical features”. The first of the four movements, ‘Intrada’, is a most attractive and skilfully fashioned piece. The music is graceful and elegant and I much admired the deftness of the scoring. The ‘Aria’ that follows is delicate in tone and features very appealing woodwind parts. The third movement is a relaxed Ländler. The finale is ‘Scherzo con marcia’. This is lively and good-humoured and though the march rhythms become more pronounced as the movement unfolds and becomes bigger, the music never loses its good spirits. I found Alt-Wiener Serenaden to be an affectionate and thoroughly charming composition.

Partita in modo antico is something of a homage to the Renaissance masters of polyphony, such as Palestrina. In it, Marx makes use of several modes. So, the first movement uses the Mixolydian mode. There’s a chaste purity to the writing and the music is refined. The scherzo that follows uses the Dorian mode; the movement’s Trio is slower and attractively lyrical. At the heart of the partita lies the Adagio molto. This is a solemn and rather mysterious movement, often hushed in tone. The strings of the Bochum Symphony play it with admirable sensitivity. In the finale, which is marked Vivace, Marx knits the work together structurally by utilising material from the first movement before bringing the movement and the Partita to a quiet close. This is an impressive work, well laid out for string orchestra.

The Sinfonia in modo classico, as its name suggests, revives the spirit of the Classical and early Romantic eras. The first movement, Allegro con brio, is charming and easeful. The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo is the longest of the four movements. The annotators comment, justly, that the music is cantabile in style and “[it] seems impossible to find a clear sense of orientation”, which comment I don’t believe for one second is meant as an adverse criticism. The music is long-breathed and I think it’s an impressive bit of writing, especially when it’s played as expressively as is here the case. The third movement seems to be cut from the same jib as the third movement of the Alt-Wiener Serenaden; it has an engaging elegance. Marx rounds things off with a Poco presto finale which includes fugal episodes. As in the Partita, he brings back material from the Sinfonia’s opening movement. The Sinfonia is a genial composition and very likeable.
The contents of both these CDs are well worth hearing and I think it’s particularly good that Steven Sloane has chosen to present two very different sides of Joseph Marx across these two discs. As I indicated at the start of this review, Marx was a musical conservative but don’t let that put you off: there’s nothing hidebound or reactionary here. Rather, the four works here presented show a fine musical mind and a composer who wrote effectively for orchestras of varying sizes and compositions. Though the works were new to me I had the distinct impression that Steven Sloane and the Bochum Symphony Orchestra are very effective champions for Marx’s music.

The performances have been recorded in good sound. The notes by Berkant Haydin and Martin Rucker are clearly authoritative. I like the fact that both essays are free-standing. In other words, the authors haven’t simply provided the same biographical introduction followed by specific comments on the works in question, as you often – understandably – get with discs that form a series; instead, the background comments are different in each case.

John Quinn

Previous review (Vol. 1): Rob Barnett

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