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Joseph MARX (1882-1964)
Romantisches Klavierkonzert (‘Romantic Piano Concerto’) 1919-20) [40:38]
Castelli Romani for piano and orchestra (1929-30) [33:54]
David Lively (piano)
Bochum Symphony Orchestra/Steven Sloane
rec. 2004, Erholungshaus der Bayer Industry Services, Leverkusen, Germany
Premiere Recording (Castelli)
NAXOS 8.573834 [72:48]

Joseph Marx was born in Graz, Austria, where he studied a number of disciplines at the city’s university. His various degrees included a doctorate, which was essentially an expansion of his earlier treatise on tonality, in which he coined the term ‘atonality’. He was an excellent pianist, and, as a composer, Marx is mainly remembered for his more than 150 Lieder. He was also a well-respected critic and teacher, having joined the staff of the Vienna Music Academy in 1914, becoming its rector in 1924, when it was reorganised as the Hochschule für Musik.

His first piano concerto – entitled ‘Romantic Piano Concerto’ – certainly makes significant demands on the performer. Cuban-born American virtuoso Jorge Bolet even went as far as to say that Marx’s work was his favourite among the great virtuoso concertos, because of the enormous show of strength required from the soloist. The work is really envisaged as a kind of symphonic duet between piano and orchestra, and the title, ‘Romantic’, is really more Marx’s way of seeking to distance himself from the up-and-coming modernism of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. Stylistically, Marx was influenced by a number of composers, particularly Schumann, Brahms, and Reger, the latter in his extended use of polyphonic development, which is certainly evident in the concerto. Contemporary Viennese musicologist and critic, Heinrich von Kralik, saw Marx as a bridge between Brahms, Wolf, and Schoenberg, especially the latter’s pre-Serialism stage. Marx was an absolute master of harmony, and in this concerto, his harmonic palette is so rich that at times you might be led into thinking you were listening to Scriabin. I was also very much reminded of Richard Strauss, or Debussy, especially with the proliferation of whole-tone scales, and the consequent harmonic nuances, particularly in some of the piano figuration. Many similarly-unknown composers set out to create concertos that might emulate the likes of Rachmaninov and others. Their efforts, though, generally fell short because of the often-derivative, eclectic nature of the writing. Marx’s personal voice was actually fused from the plethora of disparate sources and influences. Unlike the likes of Korngold, Marx had no connection with film music, even though many of his enthralling melodies are easily on a par with those churned out specifically for Hollywood movies.    

Despite being a conventional three-movement work, in Franco-American pianist David Lively’s hands, it comes in at just over forty minutes, which is some five minutes longer than Rachmaninov’s Second (with Giltburg), or Brahms’s epic four-movement Second (with Zimerman). In a 2005 review of the original ASV disc, MWI colleague Rob Barnett discusses the difference between Lively’s performance with Steven Sloane and the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, and Hyperion’s earlier 1997 recording with Hamelin, Osmo Vänskä and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, which is four minutes shorter overall.    

Marx’s first movement, Lebhaft (Allegro moderato), is cast in sonata form, and begins with a short drum roll which introduces the passionate opening theme, with the soloist entering just a few seconds later. From here on in, the ear is assailed by one glorious melody after another, with moments of great fire and passion, freely contrasted with those of great delicacy and emotion right up to the piano’s closing chords.

The slow movement, Nicht zu langsam (Andante affetuoso), is in traditional ternary (ABA) form, and opens with a hushed, heartfelt section for the orchestra, before the soloist joins, shortly before two minutes. This then evolves into a most lovely, relaxing way of spending ten minutes, simply letting the rise and fall of Marx’s highly-evocative writing gently wash over you. Interestingly, while Marx has thus far been conservative in his use of form, and the key of the first and third movements, and thus the work as a whole, is clearly E major, he rather unexpectedly chooses F sharp minor for the slow movement.

The opening of the finale, Sehr Lebhaft (Allegro molto), initially harks back to the start of the concerto, with a similar sort of short orchestral prelude that might just as easily open a Puccini opera, or a Strauss tone poem. The soloist enters with a business-like theme which later moves into the minor, before a gently-lyrical section which leads to a passage which seems to conjure a desert caravan crossing the Sahara – a kind of exoticism which can appear, too, in Rachmaninov’s writing. The opening theme returns in modified form and this most delightful of works ends with the piano truly victorious after its forty-minute marathon.

On one of his trips south by car, Marx, whose mother was half-Italian, visited the Castelli Romani, the rocky cities and ruins on the wooded hills outside Rome, and he went on to name the three movements of his second piano concerto after some of the sites he visited, calling the whole work Castelli Romani. In the most-informative sleeve-notes by Marx-scholar and biographer Berkant Haydin, founder of a website dedicated to the composer, he offers a most succinct description of the work, which Naxos also makes use of on the rear of the CD jewel case: ‘…Castelli Romani… is a magical pyrotechnic display of Mediterranean emotions and masterfully orchestrated atmospheric pictures’. If you do visit Haydin’s Marx-inspired website, you will see that Haydin is equally as pithy in his assessment of the composer, whom he refers to as a ‘Master of Romantic Impression’, which would seem to sum up Marx’s unique style to sheer perfection.

The work – now in the home-key of E flat major – opens with Villa Hadriana: Allegro (ma non tanto), and while this isn’t a film score, it still sets the visual scene exquisitely, where the deliberate use of pentatonic scales, and modality, with plenty of bare fourths and fifths, all contribute in achieving the same picture in sound. The ensuing solo-piano passage provides an ideal example of the kind of ‘romantic impressionism’ to which Haydin referred. A more-troubled section follows which brings welcome movement to this wonderfully-impressive soundscape, and which is again taken up by the piano, before a delicately, and lightly-scored passage with almost oriental overtones gives way to a more imposing statement from the piano, whose role is often both to decorate the orchestral lines with pure filigree, as well as link the contrasting sections together. The modality of the opening then brings the movement to its joyful conclusion.

The second movement, Tusculum: Andante is set in the eponymous garden city of ancient Rome, surrounded by pine trees. Again, the opening is quite enchanting, and the piano is soon to add its own gentle comments on this, before another modally-inflected melody takes over, featuring some charming solo woodwind writing along the way. Castelli Romani was premiered in 1931, with pianist Walter Gieseking, and Karl Böhm conducting. Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, the latter a similarly-descriptive work for piano and orchestra but without the virtuosity, appeared in 1924, and 1916 respectively, so it should come as little surprise that elements of these two earlier compositions can be felt in Marx’s work, and especially here in the slow movement. As it progresses, there are some charmingly-crafted moments where the flute so vividly helps recreate a sense of antiquity, to which the piano adds its own harp-like arpeggios. The movement ends as it began, showing Marx’s innate ability to change the mood and scene in a flash, yet in such a seamless fashion.

The finale takes its name from a famous Italian wine – Frascati: Presto, which, as Haydin so aptly puts it, is the ‘epitome of southern joie de vivre’. The scene is Marx’s beloved Campagna, a small town in the province of Salerno, with people dancing to cheerful rhythms, and where the composer gives us a far-off glimpse of the Roman Forum and St Peter’s Cathedral, in a truly magical way. The opening piano theme, taken up immediately by the orchestra, could hardly sound more Italian in spirit. The dance-like opening metamorphoses into a pure Italian love-song, and, were this a film-score, anytime now we would be expecting to see the likes of Mario Lanza make his appearance and burst into passionate song. Then, we are back in the small town, and enjoy the momentary strains of solo violin and mandolin, before the dance begins to pick up again. Finally, the modal theme of the opening movement is reprised, now decked out in all its glory, as the work concludes with a joyful peal of bells over which the piano has its final, triumphant say.

I do have the original Hyperion CD of Marx’s ‘Romantic Piano Concerto’, but must admit that I have scarcely, if ever played it more than once or so. This might appear somewhat at odds with my hopefully unbridled enthusiasm for the work on this new Naxos release. It was certainly nothing at all to do with Hamelin’s performance, which, while a shade brisker overall, is just as satisfying as Lively’s. No, it was Hyperion’s choice of running-mate which spoilt it for me. As the eighteenth volume in their Romantic Piano Concerto Series (currently standing at seventy-nine), I have never warmed to Korngold’s Piano Concerto in C sharp minor for the Left Hand, which coupled it – just a personal thing, I know.

But never having heard Marx’s Castelli Romani, I was very keen to try the Naxos coupling, and I have already fallen back in love with the ‘Romantic Piano Concerto’ But Castelli Romani is simply something else, and something which my far-younger colleagues and students would no doubt describe as ‘awesome’ – and hopefully in the true sense of the word.

The recording scrubs up perfectly well, and Lively’s performance, along with the Bochum Symphony Orchestra under Sloane’s assured and well-studied baton, is absolutely exemplary throughout.

Naxos deserves to have a sure-fire hit with this new release, and it is, without doubt, the most enjoyable CD I have had the pleasure of reviewing for some considerable time. Need I say more?   

Philip R Buttall

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