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5/5 stars

Three Marx Works That Evoke Music Past

Joseph Marx (1882-1964) was considered a conservative throwback toward the end of his life because much of his music was written in a combination of late Romantic and Impressionistic styles. But when he came to write the three late works presented here he became even more conservative in the sense that he reverted to even older styles, those of the Renaissance polyphonists or the symphonists and quartet writers of the Classical period, Haydn in particular. There certainly was precedent for that sort of homage to the styles of earlier masters, and it is no surprise that Marx, whose knowledge of the old masters was profound, should do the same.

The first of these works is 'Alt-Wiener Serenaden' ('Old Viennese Serenades'), a four movement work for large orchestra that invokes the music of his beloved city and of some of the music associated with it. The first movement, 'Intrada,' immediately strikes one with its charm and evocation of times past, gemütlichkeit and courtly manners combined. 'Aria' is a dreamy song featuring wind solos. The 'Minuet' is really more of a Ländler, that forerunner of the waltz entirely fitting in a Viennese suite; it quotes Haydn directly. The 'Scherzo con marcia (Presto)' is a lightly scored contrapuntal romp.

Marx wrote three string quartets. In the 1940s he orchestrated the Second and Third for string orchestra. The string quartet versions have already been recorded on ASV by the Lyric Quartet. The versions for string orchestra do not appreciably change the musical materials of the quartets, but the sound of the full ensemble is richer.

'Quartetto in Modo Antico,' arranged from the Second Quartet, comprises four movements in, in order, the Mixolydian, Dorian, Phrygian, and again Mixolydian modes. Written in homage to the contrapuntal music of such composers as Palestrina, Lassus and Tallis, there is the medieval feeling associated with this harmonic language. Most striking is the slow movement, in Phrygian mode [the scale one hears by playing the white keys from E to e]; at times one is reminded some of the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and then one realizes it is because we associate this mode with his 'Variations on a Theme of Thomas Tallis' in that mode and as well as RVW's use of contrapuntal string writing. The last movement is a marvelous double fugue.

'Quartetto in Modo Classico,' the orchestrated Third Quartet, is written in neoclassic form but also in part in late Beethovenian harmonic language. His is clearly an homage to the music of Classic Period, at least in the forms used, but Marx cannot resist some added-note harmonies and a smidgen of chromaticism, although extremely mild compared to the First Quartet. The homage is absolutely genuine and heartfelt; there is none of the irony implicit in, say, Prokofiev's 'Classical Symphony' or Harold Shapero's 'Symphony for Classical Orchestra.' Perhaps, among modern composers, the feeling comes closest to that magnificent late-Beethovenian slow movement in George Rochberg's Third Quartet. The Adagio is serenely beautiful; the first time I heard it I had to go back immediately and hear it again two times. The third movement, Tempo di Menuetto, is a particularly gracious specimen that ventures occasionally into more chromatic harmonies, but its Trio reverts to a musette-like rustic drone, a charming touch, before it returns to the main theme. The Finale is a masterfully crafted contrapuntal 6/8 romp (with a 3/4 middle episode). The return of the A section incorporates the opening section of the quartet's first movement, a subtle rounding-out of the entire work.

We have the previous Amazon reviewer, Berkant Haydin, to thank for this renaissance of the music of Joseph Marx; he has been more or less single-handedly responsible for spearheading it. His booklet notes for this release are excellent. He maintains a Joseph Marx website that contains all manner of additional information about the composer. (You can find it at The playing of the Bochum Symphony Orchestra under Steven Sloane, on this and the previous orchestral releases, is simply wonderful. We are waiting for recordings from them of the two piano concerti, which I understand have already been recorded but not yet released, and the magnificent 'Herbst-Symphonie' ('Autumn Symphony'). The growing number of Marx enthusiasts are waiting eagerly.

Scott Morrison

March 16, 2005

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