The following review was published on

Long overdue hedonism

There are those who may never hear these songs, and of them the best that can be said is that they will never know, and therefore not miss, how the mastery of orchestration here displayed, when allied to the most idiomatic and sumptuously recorded performances one could reasonably expect, has perhaps produced the outstanding classical vocal recording of the year.

For those unfamiliar with Joseph Marx, he was a long-lived composer (born Graz, Austria, in 1882) whose most familiar work consists of over a hundred published songs for voice and piano (there is a further untapped legacy of unpublished songs awaiting discovery) almost all composed between 1900 and the start of the First World War, and collected into four large folios by the Schuberthaus-Verlag/Universal Edition.

Marx came late to composition, against the wishes of his family, and was largely self-taught. The songs, like all his work roughly before 1930, carry a romantic power of expression to heights hardly scaled by any other composer before or since, and they revel in memorable, often bittersweet vocal lines which soar and float above colourful and expansive accompaniments which in their original versions frequently use the whole of the compass and emotional power of a great concert grand piano. The musical language sets Austrian charm and rhythm in tandem with Italian warmth and lyrical intensity. Marx had Austrian and Italian parents.

So what of the orchestral versions of the selection recorded here? The scoring allows added colour to come through, for example in solo work for individual instruments (the leading violin, for example, in "Marienlied" - one of Elisabeth Schumann's favourite Marx songs)and the many patches of imaginative scoring help the quite dense textures to come across at first hearing, for this is complex music which repays repeated study. Try "Zigeuner" for a full demonstration of the range of scoring on offer. It is a help that the scoring usually gives the impression that the pieces were composed for orchestra rather than being obvious transcriptions of piano music.

The two soloists are very well-chosen, and cope quite effortlessly with the music and the orchestral backdrop. Angela Maria Blasi's opening phrases in the quite gorgeous "Hat dich die Liebe berührt" are quite enough to convince you that here is a combination of star-like ability and meltingly lovely music, propelling you on through the programme.

Stella Doufexis is by no means less at ease, and projects more darkly the power of some of the repertoire using both vehemence and determination. Listen to the solemn but festive "Jugend und Alter" to hear this in action: Marx set a translation of a pithy piece by Walt Whitman, reminding us that old age is just round the corner, and just as irresistible as the zest and Úlan of youth.

Doufexis ends with the complete song cycle "Verklärtes Jahr": songs composed later in the composer's career, by which time Marx had joined the musical establishment in Austria eventually to become an honourary "Father of the House", a position he occupied until his death in 1964. The later songs are more diffuse and impressionistic, and might be said to work better at first hearing with orchestra than do their originals with piano accompaniment; they are, in this version, more immediately accessible.

Steven Sloane's direction and the orchestral playing are both fine, and the recording is suitably warm and resonant.

So, let me say that I have tried to whet your appetite, not only for this disc, but to explore the remaining song output of this composer, a man who provided such substance to his musical language that he out-Hollywooded Hollywood, before the latter had been invented. His only substantial stylistic rival, at all in the public eye, is Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose song output is meagre, in terms of numbers, by comparison.

M. J. A. Brough (Buckinghamshire)

Dec. 10, 2004

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