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Joseph MARX (1882-1964)
Natur-Trilogie (1922-5):-
1. Ein Symphonische Nachtmusik (1922)
2. Idylle - Concertino über die pastorale Quart (1925)
3. Eine Frühlingsmusik (1925)
Bochum SO/Steven Sloane
rec. Maximilianpark, Hamm, Germany, 11-15 June 2002. DDD
Complete Orchestral Music: Volume 1.
ASV CD DCA 1137 [64.19]

Some forty years ago - or more - I heard a beautiful song on the radio, with no idea who it was by, or who was singing. The latter I still don't know - but some time later, browsing in a bookshop, I came across some sheets of music, the covers decorated in a richly romantic vein. And here, to my delight, was that very song - its title Marienlied, the composer Joseph Marx.

Determined to investigate the music of this composer I soon realised that he was almost totally neglected. However I was lucky enough to find scores of both Violin Sonatas (bravo Travis & Emery!), the huge Romantisches Klavierkonkonzert, the Suite for cello and piano and a quantity of equally beautiful songs and piano pieces. Some time afterwards the pianist/composer Patrick Piggott sent me a rather scratchy old tape of Marx's Castelli Romani for piano and orchestra (then in his own repertoire which included such rarities today as Turina’s Rhapsodia Sinfonica, Fauré’s Ballade, Bax’s Saga Fragment, the Hurlstone, Ireland and ApIvor concertos and Field's 4, 5, 6 and 7) and from that date Marx has been a composer whose works I have valued highly and sought after.

At the time also I was dimly aware of a big orchestral work which had gone missing - not just neglected but actually lost - a work described by Marx's biographer Andreas Liess as "a late romantic symphony of incredibly orgiastic euphony and voluptuous impressionism" - shades of Bax's Spring Fire!

And now here, in this fabulous recording. if not the missing Herbstsymphonie itself (which might yet be pursued?) we have a refreshingly tantalising introduction to the even lesser known orchestral works of Joseph Marx with a promise from ASV that all the orchestral and chamber music will follow.

Of course the sprawling Piano Concerto - recorded not so long ago in Hyperion's series of romantic concertos - must surely have excited many who have not succumbed to the pervasive disease of minimalism - for this music is the farthest remove - not only from those desiccated scores, but also from those mean spirited souls who are distrustful of excess of any kind no matter how lovely it may be. For surely this music is excess? But if, in the 20th century, with all the panoply of a range of orchestral device and colour flooding the canvas in the wake of Debussy, Strauss and Delius, Marx can revel ecstatically in Nature in an even more 'unbuttoned' fashion than Beethoven's "happy feelings on venturing into the countryside" then who should complain? Wasn't it Fenby who said of Delius something to the effect that there is: ‘little enough beauty in the world today - why complain of a surfeit of it in one man?'

The mention of Debussy, Delius and Bax is not at all inappropriate - for it is a Delian sense of 'flow' that carries this ecstatic music over a plethora of dominant sevenths, interrupted cadences and climactic 6/4s - climaxes which suddenly burst forth with little or no build-up, as if the composer, all at once, brimmed over with expressive joy to which he must give vent. For the main impact of this ecstatic music is a joyous sound - and in quieter moments wrapt in a mood of contemplative peace.

Marx’s Nature Trilogy was written between 1922 and 1925 - and its constituent parts are here performed together (It had hitherto been played - though not in the benighted U.K.) as separate pieces of a tone-poetical nature - no reason why not, since it seems there is little by way of thematic links between the three sections, and, as played here, it is soon realised that this is not a symphonic whole in the accepted sense). The first section is a gorgeously opulent symphonic poem whose subject is a moon-washed night, untroubled by the dark imagery that shadows Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Marx was a strong opponent of the Schoenberg circle - and although perhaps disliking the programme behind the Schoenberg work he must surely have admired the rich texture of the Sextet, and probably the Gurrelieder)

There is little doubt about the influence of Debussy which Marx happily acknowledges in the second of the three sections - the Idylle. The impressionism is no less seductive than that of L’Après-midi, even if the sexual imagery of the faun s perhaps replaced by a kind of pantheism embodied in priapic wood-creatures. It is not the Debussy of La Mer a work in which no human element is involved. Nor is it mere picture-postcard music although perhaps closer to the Nocturnes of 1899. Its joy in Nature is a kind of mythic pantheism in Castelli Romani and most evident in his last major composition Verklärte Jahr - settings for voice and orchestra of German poets and his own words:

"And near the marble ruins which albeit insensitive

Tell you better than men what youth, desire and impermanence are."

Yet somehow this music is far removed from the neurotic morbidity of Schoenberg and his circle, its yearning born of the awareness of the impermanence of that beauty, yet underneath the promise of reburgeoning Spring.

Marx's music, just as brazenly romantic has a lot in common with that of Bax here recalling immediately, in the opening bars of the first section the development of the Sixth Symphony's scherzo theme as it leads [fig. 36] into the Epilogue, equally ecstatic and curiously in the same key. Indeed the central tune of this might readily have come from Bax's pen - recalling Cathleen ni Houlihan. And there are many felicitous details of orchestration in common.

Marx's world is also very close to Delius's - and in the central Idylle, deep in the wooded garden, is the song of the cuckoo - another element of Spring. Marx is said to have composed mostly during the summer months - but it is the Recurrent Spring that is the motive force in his work.

This element of awakening Spring seems to crystallise in the opening bars of Marx’s A major Violin Sonata:

A motif - idée fixe - leitmotif - call it what you will - that also appears in the first section of the trilogy [at 6.10] and significantly returns in the very opening bars of the third Frühlingsmusik. It also pervades the Violin Sonata, and in the first bars of the Quartetto Chromatico (in these last instances, in the same key). Surely despite the intimation of regret, or melancholy in the falling 7th, this motif must in some way have a connection with Spring?

But all is not excess. The Suite for cello and piano acknowledges its ancestry in Schubert and Brahms - and its powerful athleticism is echoed in the chamber music of Ireland and Bridge. Yet in. the formal constrictions of Fugue (such as that in the A major Violin Sonata, and in the Prelude and Fugue for piano solo) Marx contrives to invent eloquently melodic subjects such as few composers - the other exceptions are certainly Reicha and Paderewski - can produce.

So what do we know of Marx? Sadly little enough despite the vastness of his oeuvre. He was a renowned teacher, philosopher and author of treatises on harmony and counterpoint (which would seem to counter challenges to his supposed vagaries of form). He was an implacable enemy of the second Viennese school - as brazen a romantic as was Bax (Marx only died in 1964) less of a 'wunderkind' than Korngold (with whom he has been too often compared). He wrote some of the loveliest lieder since Schumann by whom his song writing is certainly influenced (the Liederkreis)culminating in the cycle' Verklärte Jahr.

The songs and piano music belong principally to the 1920s - and until 1930 or so he wrote largely for the orchestra. Latterly he devoted himself to chamber music - and it is hoped that, as well as the orchestral music ASV will record these mature compositions.

For the moment therefore, we hear possible echoes of Ravel (La Valse?) Strauss, Korngold, Reger, Franz Schmidt, Respighi, Zemlinsky - and other near-contemporaries. Yet, until a wider experience of this composer is heard it is scarcely possible to be specific - and we may for the moment conclude, as is so often the case in this century, that these 'influences' are likely as not mere 'clippings into the common pot' of the musical language of the day (The 8th, 9th and 10th bars of the piano solo' Arabeske' are echoed in the music of Billy Mayerl?) suffused as it is with the exoticism that travel and communication (especially film and the media) has brought.

This is certainly music to wallow in - such experiences are rare enough that satiety is unlikely! It is a fine and welcome recording, an excellent performance as far as we can judge without a score - and there is no doubting the sincerity of the players and their committed conductor.

I look forward eagerly to ASV's future Marx productions - and hope that somewhere in the dust the Herbstsymphonie will materialise.

Colin Scott-Sutherland

see also review by Rob Barnett


An outstandingly well presented and detailed Marx site:

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