Fanfare Magazine, 2003 / 27, No. 1

Imagine an Austrian composer with Bax's mystical sensitivity to nature, Schrecker's gift for orchestration, and Magnard's subtle sense of architecture. Throw in a strong enthusiasm for Debussy and a distinctive melodic profile, and you have Joseph Marx (1882-1964). Once renowned as a pedagogue and a celebrated opponent to the Second Viennese School, Marx's skill as a composer has long been obscured.

The three tone poems recorded here should help rectify matters materially. They were composed as a "Nature Trilogy" over a period of several years, in the mid 1920s. Marx saw them as a three-movement work, an impression bolstered by the understated cross-referencing to common motifs in the deceptively discursive, intricate variational structures of all three poems. They were never performed together, which the liner notes claim was due to their complexity. Yet, given the topflight conductors and orchestras that gave performances of individual tone poems, one has to wonder whether the problem wasn't more stylistic in nature. Marx was, to put it bluntly, in the vanguard of the classical rearguard; a composer who continued to write music that appealed, aesthetically and philosophically, to a concert audience of an earlier day. He wrote it, if this release is anything to judge by, with exceptional talent, but it is doubtful that contemporary international audiences of the 1920s and 1930s had much taste for nature pantheism and luxuriant Impressionism unless Debussy was the author and the results, an already acknowledged classic.

The nurturing and sentient Nature that Marx gives us is far away from the primordial force of Tennyson's "red in tooth and claw." The first tone poem, Eine Symphonische Nachtmusik (1922), was initially entitled Night of the Moon. It depicts a peaceful garden, almost preternaturally conscious under the full moon, filled with the song of a nightingale. The central rondo portrays a rapturous dance between lovers. The delightfully pastoral Idylle (1925) pays direct and intentional homage to Debussy. As the excellent liner notes from Berkant Haydin and Martin Rucker point out, the middle section, subtitled "Concertino on the Pastoral Fourth," is framed by the solo clarinet in a variation on the famous flute melody from Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. The third poem, Eine Frühlingsmusik ("Spring Music") from 1925, moves from third-person observation of nature to a representation of nature's wakening: birdsong, ice-weep, an earth-laden scent in which the power of the forest is resplendent.

Marx's music throughout is rich but almost always transparent. It is not overripe, never losing its vitality or hiding a lack of inspiration behind density. Like Debussy's tone poems, it conceals a refined structure within an apparently improvised design. The orchestral writing is exquisite, and the melodic content often memorable. You probably won't go away humming what you've heard, but it doesn't take much to get the key motifs and most impressive moments of the first two tone poems stuck in one's mind. This is powerfully emotional, frequently inspired music-not original, if that matters, but highly imaginative and gifted with its own poetic sensibility.

I never heard of the Bochum Symphony Orchestra until this CD appeared, though one of its musical directors since the orchestra's founding in 1919, Othmar Maga, is a familiar name from various recordings made over the last 30 years. American-born, Israeli-resident Steven Sloane is their latest musical director, having joined them in 1994. The performances are clear, cool, and well defined, evincing a fine control of dynamics and a natural sense of tempo. For all the mention (and obvious truth) of the works' technical demands, nothing here seems beyond the capability of these Bochum musicians-and that says quite a lot. Engineering is fine, resonant without swamping detail. In short, this is magnificent music, performed with great sympathy. Chalk up another entry to my 2003 Want List.

Barry Brenesal

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