Joseph Marx (1882-1964) has, despite the best efforts of first ASV and now Chandos, remained obstinately on the periphery of concert life. And this selection of Orchestral Songs and Choral Works provides a convenient summary of the Austrian composer's strengths and weaknesses. At its best, his music is an intoxicating mix of rich harmonies – with elements of the French impressionists, Scriabin, Strauss and early Schoenberg – and deft, original orchestration; at its worst it can sound twee, saccharine and overblown, the means disturbingly out of proportion with the content.
It has to be said that the notes by Berkant Haydin and Stefan Esser of the Joseph Marx Society, although admirably detailed, do the composer few favours in their tendency towards uncritical hyperbole: 'Hat dich die Liebe berührt' is no doubt a lovely song, but 'one of the most beautiful hymns to love in the whole song repertoire' seems, even in Christine Brewer's persuasive performance, to be overstating it. However, it is in the songs that express simple, heartfelt emotion, such as the Heyse setting mentioned above, that Marx is at his best; indeed it is his gently romantic and wistful Lieder that crop up most on CD and in concert.
Chandos unfortunately rely on singing translations for several songs (perhaps for copyright or, more likely, budget reasons) while Ann Flood provides excellent new translations for the others, as well as all four choral pieces. It's a shame that she seems only to have been engaged to submit Universal Edition's old-fashioned renderings to the most minimal editing. This means that, for example, the erotically charged final line of 'Selige Nacht' ('Träume des Rausches, so reich an Sehnsucht') still comes out with almost comic prudishness as 'dreams and visions, so pure and holy'. Marx writes beautifully for the voice and Brewer's rich, bright soprano fills out the melodic line as well as one could hope. It's difficult to claim that the composer's melodies are terribly inspired and he is often frustratingly reluctant to put together the stirring chord progressions we're used to hearing allied to such rich orchestration. Nevertheless, 'Selige Nacht' is highly evocative, 'Sommerlied' is an enjoyable swirl of exuberance, the Novalis setting 'Marienlied' is luxurious but inevitably misses the potent juxtaposition of the chaste and the erotic Schubert achieves in his setting of the same poem.
Another interesting song is 'Waldseligkeit', a setting of the same Dehmel poem as Strauss used for his famous song, whose string figures consistently remind one of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (after another Dehmel poem). 'Barkarole' – a poem by Adolf Friedrich von Schack – was also set by Strauss (as the last of his Op.17 songs). Marx's song is longer and significantly more ecstatic – definite hints of Puccini here – and includes shimmering and glistening evoked expertly in the orchestra, although again he struggles to produce any truly memorable melodic ideas. For me, the songs that aim at creating a feeling of rustic innocence are the least successful. The gypsies of 'Zigeuner' sound airbrushed and inauthentic, and 'Der bescheidene Schäfer' teeters dangerously close to kitsch, as does some of the string writing at the end of 'Und gestern hat er mir Rosen gebracht'.
The choral works included here – four in total, all of them premiere recordings – are headed by 'Herbstchor an Pan', which comes in at little under twenty minutes. It's a large, sprawling canvas which often brings to mind Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe and, at times, Mahler's Eighth. It is cast for large orchestra, children's chorus, chorus and soprano, tenor and bass soloists who join together for some thrilling effects. Marx described it as 'a souvenir of a resplendent autumn day in Lower Styria' but it's not a work that one can imagine finding lasting favour with today's audiences, although it's the type of piece that could well go down a storm at the Proms.
The same goes for the stirring 'Morgengesang', for just male choir and orchestra this time, and half the length but composed around the same time, shortly before the outbreak of World War One. The much shorter 'Berghymne' is a similar paean to nature and, like the others, something that today's audience might have difficulty identifying with. The grand 'Neujahrshymne' that finishes the disc (arranged by Esser and Haydin, it's a rare setting of an overtly religious text by Marx himself) might seem like just the optimistic shot in the arm needed in these gloomy times, until one notices that it was composed in 1914 and was planned, Esser and Haydin tell us, to herald Marx's new-found success shortly after his move to Vienna – a success that never really materialised.
Jiřì Bělohlávek is a master of marshalling large forces in lesser-known repertoire and he produces generally magnificent results from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Trinity Boys Choir and Apollo Voices. It's also just the kind of music that Chandos's engineers capture like no other and they produce a soundscape here that is spacious and clear.
That leaves the music itself and although there's persuasive evidence of Marx's considerable skill, I can't really see the choral works, in particular, ever becoming more than an occasional curiosity.
By Hugo Shirley