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Joseph MARX (1882-1964)
Alt-Wiener Serenaden for large orchestra (1941-2) [18.26]
Partita in modo antico (1937-8, arr. for string orchestra 1945) [31.08]
Sinfonia in modo antico (1940-41, arr. for string orchestra 1944) [27.10]
Bochum Symphony Orchestra/Steven Sloane
rec. Stadhalle, Wuppertal, Germany, 24-30 April 2003
ASV CD DCA 1158 [76.45]
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The works on this program, though substantial and pleasing, are apparently not representative of the music of Joseph Marx. This self-taught composer, after writing in a predominantly Impressionist idiom for most of his life turned towards the end of his career to classicism for inspiration. Rather than following the severe neo-classic style favored by Stravinsky and others, Marx adopted classical musical structures as a compositional framework, infusing them with rich chromatics and variegated timbres.

Thus, the Alt-Wiener Serenaden, commissioned for the Vienna Philharmonic's centenary, is an original, affectionate homage to Classical models, rather than a modern arrangement of old originals à la Respighi. Each of the four movements bears earmarks of the Classical period: the ABACA form of the first, the quietly clanking harpsichord in the Aria, the third movement's graceful, Ländlerisch lilt, the finale's fugal start. But chromatic, mildly dissonant harmonic gestures, along with side-steps to distant harmonic regions, keep each movement's pleasing, "old-fashioned" material planted firmly in more modern times.

According to the notes, the Partita - originally written for string quartet, as was the Sinfonia - attempts "to combine sacred music with the strictly linear techniques of a Palestrina or an Orlando di Lasso." But it doesn't sound particularly antique. The use of modal harmonies gives the score an oddly English cast: certainly the first movement's undulating motion, and the gently scherzando impulse that dominates the second, bring Vaughan Williams's string music to mind. Where Marx scores over his British counterpart, however, is in clarity of texture: the string sonorities cover a five-octave range, yet the individual strands are clearly distinguishable at all times. The remaining movements are a broad, introspective Adagio molto, in which the occasionally emergent chant-like "solo" lines more keenly evoke the older models, and a concluding Vivace launched by a bouncy fugue.

The textures of the Sinfonia are cleaner and more rigorous, yet its harmonic palette, paradoxically, is warmly expansive. The opening Allegro con brio is graceful and well-proportioned. The searching Adagio ma non troppo grows more overtly expressive as it proceeds. The third movement, headed Tempo di minuetto, most strongly underscores the Classical connections: its shapely main theme is Haydnesque, though more romantically fleshed out, while its Trio unfolds over a drone bass. The lilting theme of the finale again makes vaguely British sounds, until a translucent, Menottian waltz sings out in a distant key.

Typical Marx or not, this is immensely enjoyable music, and it sounds as if the orchestra was enjoying it as well. The Bochum Symphony I remember from Turnabout LPs was a scrappy, depressing ensemble, but under Steven Sloane's direction they sound transformed. The strings' phrasing is trim and neatly sculpted - think of the early work of Colin Davis - and the principal oboe, who has extensive solo exposure in the Serenaden, plays with an appealingly plaintive tone and poignant expression. The subtly ambient engineering is excellent.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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