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Absolutely First-Rate Austrian Romantic Impressionism

In the past few days I've been listening, quite by chance, to works by two Austrian contemporaries--Alban Berg (b. 1885) and Joseph Marx (b. 1882)--whose approach to music couldn't be more different. And I'm loving it all. I'll be writing a review of the other recording--Berg's 'Wozzeck' in English--shortly. But this review is about what amounts to a major discovery for me. I'd vaguely heard the name 'Joseph Marx' in the past but I don't think I'd ever heard a note of his music. He was known primarily in his day as a song-writer, most of which were written before he was thirty, and as a hugely talented, kind, generous teacher in Vienna; it is reported that he gave composition lessons for free to needy students. Unlike some composers who are unknown in their lifetimes but discovered only long after their deaths, Marx was well-known--at least in Germanic countries--before his death in 1964. He was privately supportive to musicians threatened by the oppressive tactics of the Third Reich and after the War made efforts to get their music performed again in Austria and Germany. After his death he and his music were quickly forgotten.

During his lifetime he was an intransigent critic of the Second Viennese School (i.e. Schönberg, Berg, Webern et al.) and probably made some enemies as a result. His musical sound-world remained resolutely romantic although it is clear from the music at hand that he was smitten with the emerging impressionism coming from France.

The work recorded here never really had a full performance even in Marx's lifetime; it was severely cut, or parts of the trilogy were played separately. This recording is reportedly the first time it has been heard in its original form. And what a piece it is; I listened to it three times in row, so transfixed I was barely able to breathe.

One hears echoes of a number of other composers in Marx's style, although the totality is uniquely his own. It's as if an English pastoralist (Bax, Delius) with Mahlerian melodic ability had strengthened his backbone with Germanic contrapuntal technique (Schmidt, Reger), and added a soupçon of Italian pictorial orchestration (Respighi, Casella) resulting in lushly romantic yet impressionistic sweep.

The 'Nature Trilogy' comprises 'Symphonic Night Music' (about 16 minutes long), 'Idyll' (15 mins.), and 'Spring Music' (23 mins.). It was composed in the early 1920s, primarily during summers when Marx repaired to the countryside near his hometown of Graz, and where he often met with his buddies Franz Schmidt, Leopold Godowsky and Franz Schreker, along with other less familiar composers like Wilhelm Kienzl [now there's a composer who is due for thorough reinvestigation!] and Anton Wildgans.

The first movement is a nocturne, subtitled 'Mondnacht' ('Night of the Moon') and depicts a moonlit garden in which two lovers spend a rapturous night. They dance to a sensuous slow waltz in the middle part of the movement before the movement ends in shimmering ecstasy.

The 'Idyll' is an homage to Debussy's 'Afternoon of a Faun.' It begins with a medievalized deconstruction of the famous flute solo that begins Debussy's piece, but this time with a solo clarinet. It, like the first movement, is mostly slow music but this time in the soft light of a misty day. A distant cuckoo is heard, almost as if in a dream.

'Spring Music' depicts the world's reawakening after the winter's freeze. Rivulets form brooks, leaf- and flower-buds swell and unfold, the sun shines brightly, birds sing. The world exults. Momentarily the moonlight of the first movement and the idyll of the second are recalled.

The Bochum Symphony Orchestra is led by American-Israeli conductor Steven Sloane. (I had to look up the location of Bochum which, I blush to admit, I'd never heard of, and find that it is a city of half a million in the North Rhine Westphalian region that includes Essen, Dortmund, Dusseldorf and Cologne. On the evidence of this recording I'd warrant that it is a major orchestra without a single weakness that I can detect. Forty-five year old Sloane, a native of Los Angeles but long resident in Israel, has been the orchestra's conductor for ten years and has recently been named music director of the American Composer's Orchestra in New York. He is someone to watch.

I give this CD my highest recommendation. On the strength of this music I have ordered CDs of his first piano concerto (with Marc-André Hamelin) and of his three string quartets. I am gratefully beholden to the exceptionally useful booklet notes written by Berkant Haydin and Martin Rucker, included with this ASV release.


Scott Morrison

Sept. 18, 2003

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