Richard Bratby

Sugar rush | 7 December 2017

Plus: at Barbican, Cecilia Bartoli’s charisma and sense of theatre more than compensated for the vocal wear and tear

To get a flavour of Joseph Marx’s An Autumn Symphony, picture the confectionery counter in a grand Viennese café. Beneath the glass lies sweetness beyond imagining: towers of sponge cake, billows of whipped cream, and icing that shines red and orange. You wander down the display: there are Sachertortes, petits fours, candied angelica and glacé cherries. It goes on — dark chocolate glints over golden pastry and pink marzipan cushions swell beneath tangles of spun sugar. At which point you realise that what you really want is an espresso and a bread roll.

And it looked like it would be such a treat, too. There’s hot competition for the title Last of the Viennese Romantics but Joseph Marx, who died in 1964, is a definite front-runner; a composer of well-made songs and lavish orchestral music written in a style that is (to borrow a phrase from Michael Haas, author of Forbidden Music) not so much post-Romantic as hyper-Romantic. An Autumn Symphony provoked a modest riot when it was premièred in Vienna in 1922. Practically unheard since then and rumoured to be the last word in jugendstil lusciousness, it had acquired a cult following. This performance by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski was its UK première, some 95 years overdue.

For the effort alone, Jurowski and his orchestra deserve only praise. Every part of the woodwind and brass section was expanded; harps, piano and celeste jangled along, and horns and percussion sprawled halfway across the back of the stage. The LPO could have saved itself a lot of trouble (and judging from the gaps in the audience, a sharp financial hit) by just doing Mahler’s First instead. But Jurowski made a leap of faith, and his players did too. The strings slid between notes in fine style.

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