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A Case of Mistaken Identity

New York
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
02/28/2009 -  
Hugo Wolf: Italian Serenade
Joseph Marx: Four songs: Hat Dich die Liebe berührt (If Love Has Touched You) – Selige Nacht (Blissful Night) – Zigeuner (Gypsies) – Barcarolle
Franz Schubert: Symphony Number 9 in C Major (“The Great”)

Angela Maria Blasi (Soprano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta (Conductor)

A. M. Blasi & Z. Mehta (© Julien Jourdes for Carnegie Hall Archive)

One definition of bliss is hearing the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play an all Viennese program. Even if the conductor isn’t from Austria, the orchestra has not only retained a lineage of musicians, many of whom have grandfathers who played in front of Brahms and Strauss. Like the cast of a Viennese operetta, the strings are always sunny, the brass is always manly, the winds play like woodland sylphs, and the percussion is never mean, but gives the accent and rhythm to the cast.

I must confess, though, to a pardonable mistake. The program listed composers Schubert and Wolf—as well as four songs by “Marx”. Who was this “Marx” person, I wondered? Would it….could it? Yes,, I thought. That fine American soprano Angela Maria Biasi would be letting down her hair to sing the great lieder of Groucho himself!

So I entered the Carnegie Hall humming Lydia, the Tattooed Lady, trying to remember the lyrics of Hurray For Captain Spaulding and sotto voce whistling “The Gypsy Love Song: A Cup Of Coffee, A Sandwich And You.

What a merry evening this would be, thought I. Until to my astonishment (and yes, despair), Ms Biasi was singing music by one Joseph Marx. Who knew?

Joseph Marx isn’t sung much in America these days, although Leontyne Price—and Ms. Biasi—have made some excellent recordings of his numerous songs. His relative unpopularity isn’t because of his passive acceptance of the Nazi government in his native Austria, where he happily composed during the war. Nor was talent lacking in his songs. In fact, the best of them—Pierrot Dandy for piano, and the opening orchestral song last night, Hat Dich die Liebe berührt, bear a luscious resemblance to Richard Strauss at his juiciest.

But Mr. Marx was a vociferous polemicist against “modern” music, notably Schoenberg and his students. Where Strauss could (literally) afford to ignore the Second Viennese School, Joseph Marx apparently condemned it.

Ms. Biasi could have been blissfully unaware of that side of Mr. Marx. Her creamy soprano essayed the quartet of songs, the longest of which, Barcarolle, was a fine example of late-Romantic Wolfian artificial Italian lyricism, with some interesting orchestral interludes.

Wolf came to mind, because that de facto Austrian (actually born in Styria, today part of Yugoslavia), also enamored of Italy had the program-opener, with his most popular composition, Italian Serenade. As a string quartet (its original incarnation), the Italian Serenade can be springy, almost bouncy. The arrangement for small orchestra is also modestly delightful. But the complete Vienna Philharmonic inevitably adds some extra-heavy dollops of cream to the frothy zabaglione, although Mr. Mehta did give it a lively enough beat.

Both Wolf and Marx showed the age they lived in Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is ageless, and the Vienna Phil is the orchestra which brings out the most melodic sunniest side of the piece. Mr. Mehta gave well-oiled pleasing reading, without all the repeats and without much gravitas either, save the stunningly beautiful Trio of the Scherzo.

The length was still heavenly (as Schumann said), but the performance was that of a complaisant, congenial mortal.

Harry Rolnick



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