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Joseph Marx: Trio-phantasie; Lieder

Release Date: 04/29/2014 
Label:  Cpo   Catalog #: 777857   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Joseph Marx
Performer:  Christoph RenzSimone NoldFelix Schwartz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hyperion Trio
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MARX Trio-Phantasie. 4 Songs after Poems by Anton Wildgans 1 Hyperion Tr; 1 Simone Nold (sop); 1 Christoph Renz (fl); 1 Felix Schwartz (va) CPO 777857 (62:06 Text and Translation)

Let’s get this out of the way first. Consensus opinion as to why Joseph Marx (1882–1964) is Read more little remembered today relies heavily on his loyalty to tonality and a Romantic aesthetic at a time when music’s winds were blowing hard in other directions. Born in Graz, Marx grew up and came of age in the same Austrian musical and cultural milieu that nurtured Mahler, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern; and by the time Marx died, Berio, Stockhausen, and other luminaries of the avant-garde had altered the musical landscape to the point where Marx refused to accept their efforts as music. Thus, it was Marx’s conservatism that’s said to have doomed him. Yet, something even more troubling in Marx’s history may have played a bigger role in sealing his fate, something not touched on in Wikipedia’s abbreviated biography, but discussed at length in joseph-marx.org/en.

Marx’s conservative, indeed reactionary, views made him especially susceptible to the philosophy and propaganda of the Nazi regime; and in turn, the Nazis saw in Marx a willing proponent of their political goals. To what extent he supported those goals or was avowedly anti-Semitic remains a matter of conjecture, but no amount of whitewashing or apologias offered on his behalf can absolve Marx—or other composers and artists of the period—of complicity in the regime’s agenda for cultural cleansing. Marx gave lectures praising the Nazis’ efforts in the areas of cultural and musical purification, which can only mean that he approved banning performances of music by Jewish composers. In the end, it may have been Marx’s Nazi sympathies more than his musical conservatism that tarnished him in the post-World War II era.

For many listeners, exposure to Marx’s music may be limited to his Piano Concerto in E Major, forced, perversely, if deservedly, to share a disc with the Piano Concerto in C? Minor by the Jewish Korngold on Volume 18 of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series. But Marx’s main output was in the area of vocal and choral music, of which he penned some 120 songs and a number of works for chorus and orchestra. In addition to the above-mentioned piano concerto, he did compose a second concerto in E? Major, titled, “Castelli Romani”; several orchestral works, including a symphony, titled “Autumn”; and a handful of string quartets, piano quartets, violin sonatas, and the Trio-Phantasie on this disc.

If, like Hugo Wolf, Marx had gone insane, he might have been remembered more for his songs than he is, but since Marx remained of sound mind, though of questionable judgment, he comes with no colorful eccentricities or character quirks to make him more interesting to us. Thus, we have only his music by which to judge his relative merit as a composer.

At nearly 44 minutes in length, the 1914 Trio-Phantasie is an ambitious work in five movements and surely one of the longer-playing scores in the piano trio literature. While there’s nothing specific in Marx’s melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic invention that would suggest Brahms, the overall style of the music is of a cast that identifies it as Austro-German and dates it to sometime in the 1880s, or about 25 years earlier than it was actually written. But other elements make themselves felt throughout the work as well.

The third movement, marked Scherzando , for example, gives strong evidence that Marx had knowledge of the Impressionist school in France; while the big, virtuosic solo piano cadenza at the beginning of the fourth movement, incongruously marked Intermezzo, is reminiscent of the keyboard writing of Liszt and even Rachmaninoff. But it’s the last movement, marked “Tanz-Finale,” that sounds like Marx had encountered a band of Klezmorim. The music almost sounds like it could be a model for Prokofiev’s more Modernistic 1919 Overture on Hebrew Themes.

There comes a point, I think, at which we really do need to separate a composer’s personal politics and professed beliefs from his music in order to evaluate it fairly. Much as I may be offended by what I’ve read of Marx’s Nazi leanings, I have to remind myself that this Trio-Phantasie was written 24 years before the Anschluss , and even if it’s as many years behind its time in terms of musical makeup, it’s still an effusively Romantic, gorgeous piece. The first movement begins in arrestingly dramatic fashion, and the lovely second movement, marked Adagietto , is touchingly nostalgic.

In December 1910, Marx met and struck up a friendship with Anton Wildgans (1881–1932), an Austrian playwright and poet known for his mystical dramas charged with symbolic messages typical of German Expressionism. The relationship between the two men, described by Wildgans’s wife Lily as “love at first sight,” evolved into a bond with strange homoerotic overtones which neither Wildgans nor Marx ever acted on. But in collaborating on the Four Songs heard on this disc, Wildgans, who expressly wrote the poems for Marx to set to music, sent the composer a letter in which he spoke openly of the erotic nature of the last poem, “Pan dreaming of Syrinx,” saying, “The beginning and ending provide ample opportunity for dreamy, yearning melodies and harmonies, while the rhythm of the middle stanzas makes it possible to set the sex to music.” And if that weren’t explicit enough, Wildgans went out of his way to reference the role of the flute as “a phallic symbol.”

Eventually, the relationship between the two men cooled over fundamental differences in temperament. When Wildgans sent Marx a new poem titled “Dies Irae” to set, Marx replied with a kind and diplomatic letter, but one in which he offered Wildgans some constructive criticism, which the poet didn’t take too well.

The Four Songs —“Du bist der Garten” (You are the Garden); “Durch Einsamkeiten” (Through Solitudes); “Alles Tagverlangen” (All Daily Desires); and the already cited “Pan träumt um Syrinx”—are of the same period as the Trio-Phantasie , having taken shape between 1914 and 1916. They’re of a very different style than the trio, however. Debussy’s Prélude to the Afternoon of a Faun and his own Syrinx for solo flute echo through the pages of Marx’s Syrinx , while the three songs that precede it, set to poems shot through with Expressionist symbols—e.g., “Hayricks on the meadows crouch like giants”—are woven into a dense chromatic cloth not that much different from the songs of Marx’s near contemporaries Zemlinsky, Pfitzner, Wolf, and Schreker. Every so often, one hears a glint of Richard Strauss, but in these songs, at least, Marx doesn’t possess the gift for soaring lyrical melody that so often characterizes Strauss’s vocal writing.

Only once before have I encountered the Hyperion Trio. It was back in 2007 in issue 30:6, on a four-disc Thorofon collection of piano trio works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the ensemble’s performances, but then the works being offered were among the most frequently recorded in the piano trio repertoire. The members of the Hyperion Trio—Oliver Kipp, violin; Katharina Troe, cello; and Hagen Schwarzrock, piano—haven’t changed since then. They’re the same names that appear on the present disc, and that’s a good sign because it means the group is stable; and in this case, the players have no competitors I’m aware of in the Trio-Phantasie , though CPO doesn’t claim first-recording status for the piece. The ensemble presents what sounds like a more than respectable performance, investing Marx’s music with a great deal of emotional fervor.

I do find another recording of the first three of the Four Songs on this disc—they’re included in a collection of songs by Mahler, Marx, Schreker, and Strauss on a Preiser CD—but oddly, the final “Pan dreaming of Syrinx” song is omitted. Perhaps it wasn’t published together with the first three songs, since it seems to have been written two years later.

Soprano Simone Nold sounds just a little light or thin on her topmost notes, but her timbre is beautifully suited to these songs, and she has a tight, unobtrusive vibrato that makes her a pleasure to listen to. Violist Felix Schwartz and flutist Christoph Renz, who variously join Nold and the Hyperion Trio throughout the songs, make lovely sounds.

CPO is investing heavily in Joseph Marx, having already produced four previous discs sampling his symphonic works, chamber music, and songs. Whether it will spur a Marx revival or not it’s hard to say. I, for one, certainly found this release captivating enough to listen to it more than once, and recommend it to anyone curious to explore the music of a composer who, if not musically, at least chronologically, falls within the orbit of the Second Viennese School.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Trio Phantasie by Joseph Marx
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hyperion Trio
Lieder (4) on Texts by Anton Wildgans by Joseph Marx
Performer:  Christoph Renz (Flute), Simone Nold (Soprano), Felix Schwartz (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Hyperion Trio

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