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Joseph MARX (1882-1964)
Trio-Phantasie for piano, violin and cello (1913) [43.42]
Ballade for piano quartet (1911) [18.46]
Trio Alba (Livia Sellin (violin), Philipp Comploi (cello), Chengcheng Zhao (piano)); Wen Xiao Zheng (viola)
rec. 16-17 December 2013, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany

Joseph Marx is a generally unfamiliar name today but his music drew praise from renowned conductors. Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) said that “Joseph Marx is the leading force of Austrian music.”. Riccardo Chailly asked: “How could such a major composer fall into oblivion?”

Born in Graz, Austria, the Styrian Marx is described on the website as a “Master of romantic impressionism”. It might seem improbable today but it is explained on the composer's website that during World War Two Marx was the most frequently performed composer in Austria. He is rarely mentioned in music books and his name is omitted from one of my favourite reference resources Mark Morris’s ‘A Guide to 20th-Century Composers’.

In recent years the reputation of Marx has been undergoing a change of fortune with a number of recordings appearing in the catalogues principally on ASV, Chandos (review ~~ review) and CPO (review review). Peter Rastl (Joseph Marx Society, vice-president) informs me that a Riccardo Chailly-conducted recording of Marx’s magnum opus the Eine Herbstsymphonie (An Autumn Symphony) was talked about. Unfortunately nothing has materialised. There is however a 2008 live New York recording of Eine Herbstsymphonie — in a slightly abridged version, with cuts authorized by the composer — with Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra which is available only as an mp3 download.

The feature work on the release is the Trio-Phantasie for piano, violin and cello which was written in 1913. This is a considerable work running to almost forty-four minutes. Marx uses a five movement structure writing in his characteristic traditional rather than progressive style. In the squally and passionate opening movement marked Schwungvoll, aber nicht zu schnell you feel the players tightening, lessening and re-tightening the tension. There's heartfelt passion in the Adagietto - Sehr ruhig with its delightful main melody. By contrast the Viennese character of the Scherzando. Presto feels playful, fresh and invigorating with suggestions of music from Die Fledermaus. Similar to the opening movement the Intermezzo is stormy in mood. The decidedly rhythmic Tanz: Finale has passages of fierce determination, notably its fiery close.

Around 1911/12 Marx wrote three substantial, single movement works for piano quartet: the Rhapsody, Scherzo and the Ballade. My favourite work on this release is the single movement Ballade. This is a highly attractive, romantic score which after a gentle introduction increases significantly in emotional intensity.

Recorded for MDG Audiomax in 2013 at Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster the engineers provide warm clear sound and the often difficult-to-achieve balance between piano and strings is suitably mastered. These two works are outstandingly played, judiciously paced and with lots of artistic flair and perceptive detail. The unity of the group is remarkable. This is complemented by excellent individual intonation.

It is worth mentioning that the Trio-Phantasie has also been recorded by CPO (review) but in that case is differently coupled.

Michael Cookson