International Record Review, September 2004

The Orchestral Songs by Joseph Marx
Angela Maria Blasi, soprano
Stella Doufexis, mezzo-soprano
Bochum Symphony Orchestra/Steven Sloane

Time was when a good many mid-twentieth-century German Lieder singers would regularly include a dollop of Joseph Marx in their recitals. And listening to this enterprising release you can readily understand why. Even in his lushest orchestral manner Marx gives his singers an easy ride, letting the vocal line float above the accompaniments. No nasty excursions into tangled Second Viennese thickets here; it's mostly a tonal language that is reminiscent of Richard Strauss and continues the Austrian late-Romantic tradition that was certainly well past its sell-by date when Marx was in his prime. And when it comes to themes, all the familiar late-Romantic suspects are lined up for inspection - a longing for the Mediterranean South, flirtations with the Orient, sexy gypsies, and lashings of lonely wandering through the countryside.

If you yearn for musical backbone that is to miss the point of much of this music. In their orchestrated versions Marx's songs are often rhapsodies for orchestra with vocal obbligato. Indeed, that's what makes "Ein Abschied" ('A farewell'), the first song in the late cycle "Verklärtes Jahr" ('Transfigured Year'), written in the early 1930s, so appealing. Marx, already to his fifties, is brimming with self-confidence, orchestra and soloists are by turns regretful and full of late-Romantic Sehnsucht. And the young German artist Stella Doufexis, while very much a modern mezzo-soprano with a voice veering towards the higher Fach, makes the best possible vocal case for all five of the songs in thiy cycle; even "Auf der Campagne" ('In the Campagna'), the last of them, in which Marx sets his own rather plodding poem. All credit, then, to the enterprising and ever entertaining Stevan Sloane for taking this music seriously, and for drawing our attention to it. His band, the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, a star in the making if you believe its own publicity, does him proud.

The rest of Marx's songs here are the proverbial curate's egg. They can be very good, but only in parts. "Jugend und Alter" ('Youth and Age') from Songs for Middle Voice, for example, sounds like a rejected sketch for Elektra, with twentieth-century Expressionism making a flecting appearance in Marx's defiantly tonal music universe. But compare his version of "Waldseligkeit" ('Woodland rapture') from Songs for High Voice with Richard Strauss's setting of Richard Dehmels's poem and you soon realize who is the master. Strauss creates an almost mystical hymn to nature where Marx is simply jolly.

The soprano Angela Maria Blasi fares well with the Songs for High Voice, though there is sometimes an unappealing thinness to her tone and awkward gear-changes when she opens up the voice. But in the Songs for Middle Voice Stella Doufexis simply doesn't have the necessary weight in the middle of her voice to do Marx's vocal line justice.

For all that, this collection is much more than another historical curiosity for your CD cabinet. It would be good to hear some of these songs programmed for live performance again.

Christopher Cook

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