Joseph Marx – Orchestral Songs and Choral Works

0 of 5 stars

Herbstchor an Pan
Ein Neujahrshymnus
Songs for High Voice and Orchestra:
Barkarole; Zigeuner; Der bescheidene Schäfer;Selige Nacht; Sommerlied; Marienlied; Maienblüten; Waldseligkeit; Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht; Piemontesisches Volkslied; Ständchen; Hat dich die Liebe berührt

Christine Brewer (soprano)

Elizabeth Roberts (soprano), Vernon Kirk (tenor) & Graham Titus (bass)

Trinity Boys Choir; Apollo Voices; BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Recorded 15-16 May 2008 in BBC Studio No.1, Maida Vale, London [songs] and 29 June 2008 in Watford Colosseum

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: March 2009
Duration: 72 minutes



Lieder. The orchestral songs for high voice are well suited to Christine Brewer, here heard in her prime. The great advantage of her voice is its consistency throughout its range. These are songs which might have been undertaken, had their worth been recognised, by creamy-voiced Arabellas or unwieldy if powerful Brünnhildes. As it happens, the former class of soprano is unlikely to be troubled by Marx’s scoring: he treats the voice sympathetically, never overwhelming it. Brewer, soon to be a Brünnhilde and already an Isolde, brings a Wagnerian power to the notes above the stave. However, her high As and B flats do not dazzle or flame, they gleam but retain the mellowness which is present upwards from the lower reaches of her voice.

In the 1912 song “Selige Nacht” and in “Maienblüten” of 1909 we can hear the sudden leaps and fortissimos, which Marx has characteristically awarded the singer, negotiated with comfort and attacked with disciplined precision. The quality of these songs is, however, variable. The 1909 “Barkarole” is seriously overblown. A basically simple narrative of expectant water-born travel is adorned with a long prelude, a crowning postlude and even a lengthy interlude dominated by dance rhythms. There is no mistaking the composer’s expertise in creating mood and exploiting sonorities, of which there is a wide range (including Ravel-like shimmering).

“Zigeuner” of 1912 could have been dispatched swiftly and lightly. I suspect Strauss would have done so, adding wit to his setting, too. Marx’s version is weighed down by heavy orchestral support for the singer’s phrases, as the woman nonchalantly dismisses her fiancé’s arguments for deferring their wedding. The equally folk-song-like “Der bescheidene Schäfer” gets treatment that is much more suitable. The accompaniment is by strings only; it is more playful and provides an ending that is waggishly conclusive. The voice part is more suitably centre-stage and Brewer projects the girl’s exasperation, with the repetitions of “ganz allein” particularly piquant.

Brewer’s adoption of a character in subjective poetry is well illustrated in “Marienlied”. The opening stanza finds her in religious adoration, with the voice going down into the depths while maintaining its quality. Then, in the second stanza, she reflects the element of sensuality in the text and soars ecstatically, while in the final few bars Marx introduces what may seem a gratuitous violin solo for a few seconds. That is, however, an endearing feature of his writing, expending much care over small illustrative features of the accompaniment.

Some of the texts set are commonplace in thematic expression, trivial in poetic diction. Musically Marx responds most imaginatively to more stimulating poetry. It is no coincidence that two Paul Heyse settings are particularly rewarding. Marx’s “Italienisches Liederbuch” of seventeen songs complements Hugo Wolf’s collection: no poem is duplicated. His “Ständchen”, however, adopts the procedure of illustrating the text with constantly shifting harmonies in a very Wolfian manner. “Hat dich die Liebe berührt?”, another Heyse setting, is Marx’s best-known song and could be considered the crown of his song output. Its theme of transfiguration through love receives a more panoramic projection than the intimate close-up of “Ständchen” and even in its sweeping flow Brewer has no difficulty riding the orchestra.

Despite the excellence of these two songs, “Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht” is the most satisfying, Marx setting a woman’s words (Thekla Lingen). The poet is inspired by the gift of roses to dream of the donor and she longs to turn that dream into reality. The changes of mood are clearly marked, the shift to thoughtfulness at “Da hab’ich den Traum einer Nacht ihm geschenkt”, the ecstatic surge at “Ach, käm’er zu mir” and the final return to musing. No work in this collection better demonstrates the composer’s trademarks in song, the artless melodic invention, the unexpected harmonic changes and the constantly evolving orchestral details.

The balance in these songs is ideal: the voice is properly to the fore, supported by a warm layer of sound from the orchestra. Jiří Bělohlávek is an admirable conductor in shaping each song, while not precluding the emergence of instrumental details.

The task of balancing the choral works is trickier, with individual sonorities to be registered and large-scale effects to be contained. The forces for which the early (1911) “Herbstchor an Pan” is written are substantial. Haydin in his notes speaks of a “feast for the ears”. Bělohlávek maintains his analytical approach and fascinating detail can be heard clearly. The work brings together the composer’s close relationship with nature and his knowledge of classical literature. The chorus acts as both narrator and participant in the dialogue with Pan. Haydin’s summary of Marx’s style as “Romantic Impressionism” is borne out in the atmospheric episodes and transitions, such as the sunrise and the depiction of the glittering shower of golden autumnal leaves.

The other choral works are not in the same class. All are arrangements. “Morgengesang” – originally written for male voices, brass and organ and heard here in a 1934 orchestral arrangement by A. Wassermann – is in ternary form, the radiant introduction and diatonic splendour of the concluding summons less interesting than the choral polyphony and instrumental solos suggesting birdsong that separate them. “Berghymne” is an unperformed short piece for unison chorus, discovered by Haydin in piano score and arranged by him and Stefan Esser. “Ein Neujahrshymnus”, it is plausibly argued, embodies the composer’s prayers for his success in the prestigious post of Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the University of Vienna, to which he had just been appointed in 1914. Again, what is recorded here is an arrangement of the original version for men’s voices and organ. The influence of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” is palpable in the opening and closing pages and there are passages between which would not be out of place in a Mendelssohn oratorio.

This issue does particular justice to the orchestral songs and whets the appetite for exploration of the large number of piano-accompanied Lieder still to be explored.

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