International Record Review, May 2003

Joseph Marx
"Nature Trilogy"

1. Eine Symphonische Nachtmusik
2. Idylle - Concertino über die pastorale Quart
3. Eine Frühlingsmusik

Bochum Symphony Orchestra/Steven Sloane

Among aficionados of German song, Joseph Marx (1882-1964) enjoys a modest reputation for the excellence of his Lieder, and in the German-speaking world he is still remembered through his influential (and highly conservative) pedagogical writings. Yet it's difficult to believe that for much of his career he was widely considered, at least in Austria, as one of Austria's greatest composers. A determined opponent of the Schoenberg school, long before his death his music was out of fashion; it's only now that his larger works, frequently performed in the inter-war period, are beginning to be heard again.

The Natur-Trilogie (1922-25) is avowedly among his most important scores, a triptych of symphonic poems designed to be performed as a single entity. But the Trilogy's three constituent parts Symphonic Night Music, Idyll (Concertino on the pastoral fourth) and Spring Music were never treated thus in Marx's lifetime but always played as separate works; ASV's recording is claimed as the first occasion on which they have been brought together as Marx intended. Well, if you like Strauss, Korngold, Schreker, middle-period Zemlinsky, this is probably the kind of thing you would like. It's lush, warm, rich-hued, accomplished post-Romanticism. (The Korngold parallels are palpable, and interesting: he and Marx were close friends, and hearing this music it's easy to suspect that Marx, much the older man, was an influence on the wunderkind.) A distinct personality is slow to emerge, but the least expected element in the stylistic orientation is Marx's patent admiration for Debussy, whose influence can be detected at many points especially throughout the curiously titled Idylle, which seems to be a deliberate homage, in Marx's own terms, to Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. And probably it's no coincidence that there are many echoes of Respighi, too (Marx wrote a piano concerto entitled Castelli Romani). In fact the Natur-Trilogie seems another chapter in that long Germanic artistic love-affair with the Italianate South, that in literature stretches from Goethe to Rilke and beyond, and in music from Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony to Henze at least.

Despite the symphonic label one isn't pressingly aware of Marx's trilogy as musical architecture, or indeed as much of an evolving argument. This is, rather, mood music on a grand scale, opulent and generous-hearted, drowsing luxuriantly in its warm bath of orchestral sonority, evoking nature with patent sympathy and enjoyment but something rather short of mysticism. The insert notes claims of inexhaustible genius and nothing short of a metaphysical ecstasy of creation are, like the work itself, a teensy bit over-inflated. Despite Marx's intentions, I'm not sure whether it really is a good thing to listen to the Trilogy at one sitting it makes for an awful lot of music of the same textural density, at the same (rather slow) rate of harmonic change. The faster tempos and more varied instrumentations of the concluding Frühlingsmusik are therefore welcome when we get to them, and make it for me the most interesting part of the trilogy, even though it recapitulates elements of the other two. On the whole I think the three parts may all seem more impressive and acceptable in individual performance.

What of this performance? Steven Sloane secures enthusiastic and more-than-decent accounts from the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, but I did wonder if yet more could have been done with these by-no-means easy scores on additional rehearsal time. Nor do Bochum's strings have quite the sheen and virtuosity for which the music cries out. The recording quality is good, but given the textural elaboration not ideally clear. All the same, anyone who snapped up Chandos's Schreker discs, for example (reviewed in April 2000 and March 2002), should certainly sample this one. Apparently it's the first in a series of Marx's complete orchestral music, and therefore something of a leap of faith on ASV's part. A symphony and two piano concertos, among other works, are doubtless in the pipeline, and will at the very least be worth bending an ear to.

Calum MacDonald

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