Fanfare Magazine, 2005 / 28, No. 3

MARX: 10 Songs for High Voice. 7 Songs for Middle Voice. Verklärtes Jahr
Steven Sloane, cond; Angela Maria Blasi (sop); Stella Doufexis (mez); Bochum SO
ASV CD DCA 1164 (56:35)

With this release, ASV continues its outstanding series devoted to the music of Joseph Marx (1882-1964). Composer, critic, teacher, and administrator, Marx and his music vanished under the wave of atonal academicism that swept across Europe and the US in the mid-20th century. Now that the validity of a variety of compositional styles is acknowledged, Marx has surfaced once more. I find his music without fail attractive, subtle, well crafted, and moving. This applies not just to his tone poems (ASV DCA 1137) and string quartets (ASV DCA 1073), but also to this latest release, which concentrates largely upon orchestral arrangements of Marx's piano-accompanied songs.

The excellent liner notes liken the pieces on this album stylistically to Strauss, with a rather more advanced harmonic language that recalls at various times Bax, Schreker, or Korngold. There's some truth to all of this, particularly in the last set, Verklärtes Jahr, written approximately 20 years after the selections in the other two. But there is little of Strauss's youthful, vaulting ardor or satirical humor in the shape of his songs' melodic lines. With few exceptions (Jugend und Alter being the most obvious), these songs are notable for their limpid clarity rather than their passion, and for a technical finish whose beauty lies in the accumulation of felicitous details. For example, the opening bars of the Barcarolle - a few brief touches of solo winds and brass over an undulating string section-efficiently but brilliantly set the mood, with a light, transparent touch that we seldom associate with the Late Romantics of Central Europe. The chamber-like, nocturnal delicacy of the string-writing in the haunting Piemontesisches Volkslied contrasts with the sunny richness of the same strings in Der bescheidene Schäfer (whose contents recall the old English broadside ballad, My Husband's Got No Courage in Him, but stated more discretely). The accompaniment of In meiner Träume Heimat catches Marx in a rare autumnal mood, bringing to mind Strauss's Four Last Songs. The irregular phrasing of the opening two lines in the Venetianisches Wiegenlied lend his fresh melody distinction, while the harmonically evasive orchestral conclusion of Jugend und Alter is among the most imaginative touches on the CD. What a pity Marx never wrote an opera!

If there is a flaw here, it's one of presentation. With 11 pieces in the first collection and six in the second, too many are simple declarations of love or reactions to nature's beauty. Whatever the distinctive characteristics (in the original German) possessed by the various Romantic poets Marx chose, this creates a sameness of musical mood that is only emphasized by the melodic directness and relatively short length of under two minutes common to most of these songs. While there's little variation from this formula in the final set, Verklärtes Jahr, the greater length of one piece (it lasts more than six minutes) and the strikingly mournful character of a second give it a stronger sense of variety. With the exception of that last set, then, I see this CD as something to be gradually sampled, a few songs at a time, rather than consumed at one sitting.

Angela Maria Blasi is a fine lyric soprano, with plenty of plush surrounding the focused core of her voice. While Stella Doufexis's voice is described on the album as a mezzo, I hear two distinctly different registers: a freely floating soprano with a rather clipped upper reach, and a husky, somewhat hollow alto. In character, the two seem nearly unrelated. Both singers show a fine attention to the words and their meaning, as well as a good sense of dynamics and overall phrasing. Sloane and the Bochum Symphony deliver readings of great finesse. I'd first heard them in their recording of the Nature Trilogy tone poems, referred to above, and I certainly hope to hear more from them beyond the occasional Marx release.

The engineering leaves something to be desired. While the orchestra was recorded in a fashion that sounds both natural and forward, each voice registers a reverberant after-image that sounds as though it belongs in a much larger hall. Whether this effect was achieved electronically or through studio placement, I find it obtrusive. It's difficult to judge the size of either voice accurately, in this context.

That aside, anyone who enjoys Strauss's songs will definitely want this record, and will treasure it. But if more releases follow like this one, there will surely come a time when the public no longer needs to associate Marx with the name of any of his contemporaries to experience both recognition and appreciation.

Barry Brenesal

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