The Little Label That Could

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1998.

When I was a child, I must have been deeply and lastingly moved by the story of "The Little Engine that Could." I still remember the train chugging up the mountain to the rhythm of "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can." It was, perhaps, my early exposure to this story that accounts for my fascination today with little CD companies which can and do climb mountains of artistic -- if not financial -- success. One such label is John Marks Records, named for its founder, owner, artistic director and sole employee.

I am the proud owner of quite literally nine out of ten CDs listed in JMR's 1996 catalog, and I can assure you that at least nine out of ten JMR CDs feature excellent performances, sound, and repertoire. Even the cover designs are attractive. Only the program notes -- which are often by JM himself -- leave room for complaint, and that is only because they are too short.

John Marks Records has two principal artistic assets: cellist Nathaniel Rosen and violinist Arturo Delmoni.

As the cello is one of my favorite instruments and Rosen, one of its most outstanding practitioners, it is little wonder that I am attracted to this label. JMR-5 features Rosen playing three of my favorite composers: Brahms (Cello Sonatas in E Minor and F Major), Schumann (Fantasy Pieces), and Mendelssohn (a Song Without Words). Rosen is a master at getting that gorgeous tone and melancholy expression which I so adore from the cello. Doris Stevenson is his highly-gifted accompanist on the piano. And every piece on this CD is a gem which should be in your collection!

Two other Rosen CDs I can recommend are "Rêverie: Romantic Music for Quiet Times" (JMR-10) and Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme" (JMR-3). "Rêverie" combines well-known and little-known short cello pieces by Fauré, Satie, Ravel, Elgar, Debussy, Kreisler, Chopin, Casella, Beethoven, Schumann, Bizet, Lalo, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Bach and Richard Strauss. Doris Stevenson is, once again, the piano accompanist, and there are cameo appearances by violinist Arturo Delmoni and soprano Kaaren Erickson (sadly, her last recording). If you like to go to sleep to soft music without having to worry that you'll be abruptly awakened by some loud passage, this CD can be counted on to come through -- quietly -- every time. It also serves well as an accompanist for reading. Then, too, you'll enjoy listening to it as foreground music, if you can find the time to do that.

The Tchaikovsky recording includes the little-known "Pezzo Capriccioso" and well-known "Nocturne" in addition to the moderately-famous "Rococo Variations" -- all delightful compositions. It ends with Shostakovich's "Concerto No. 1 for Cello and Orchestra" -- a strange choice to couple with the romantic Tchaikovsky, however worthwhile and important this modern concerto may be. Rosen is accompanied by the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Emil Tabakov in all these pieces.

Violinist Arturo Delmoni is heard on the very first JMR CD (JMR-1), "Songs My Mother Taught Me," accompanied by pianist Meg Bachman Vas. The music is by Kreisler, Brahms, Valdez, Paradis, Sarasate, Massenet, Tartini, Smetana, Gluck, Vieuxtemps, Fauré, D'Ambrosio, Mendelssohn and Dvorak -- a nice combination, there again, of the familiar with the new.

But the biggest "compact discovery" I have made so far thanks to John Marks Records is the Sonata in A Minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 34, by the American composer, Amy Beach (1867-1944). The first movement is particularly beautiful, romantic and lyrical, and this composition has rapidly become my very favorite work by a woman composer. Arturo Delmoni is the violinist; Yuri Funahashi, the pianist. The CD (JMR-2) begins with the Sonata No. 1 in G Major, Op. 78 ("Rain"), by Brahms -- a classic must for every chamber music collection, and a good pairing for the Beach sonata.

Listening to the Beach piece, you wonder why it isn't as well known as, let's say, the Brahms. "To speculate about the reasons for its obscurity is natural," John Marks writes in his program notes, "because Amy Beach's violin sonata is a wonderfully complex, assertive yet introspective, exhilarating work, worthy of almost any major late-19th century composer. It is a masterwork that will reward even casual listing, and deserves much more currency."

Marks advances a theory for this obscurity that I whole-heartedly agree with. "Amy Beach wrote in a musical tradition that, by the 1920s, was perceived to be a thing of the past," Marks says. "Beach did not write 'new' music, as did Stravinsky. Beach's music had no champions in the conservatories, either here or abroad. Although her symphonies were performed in Europe, no European orchestras made them their own. Not coming from Europe herself, as did Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, her music had less cachet with American audiences. Also, Beach did not have to go on tour to make a living or support a family, as did Brahms and Dvorak."

Another John Marks Records CD (JMR-8) features Arturo Delmoni and Meg Bachman Vas in performances of two French romantic compositions for violin and piano -- the A major sonatas by Gabriel Fauré and César Franck. I have for years been absolutely obsessed with the opening theme from the Fauré sonata. I can't get the tune out of my head. Talk about "catchy!" And the melodies continue to pour out, one after another, for the next 23 minutes -- a truly great composition, as is the Franck sonata which follows. If you haven't discovered the joy of chamber music, this CD is a good place to start. Just play it over and over again until it takes you to the top of its musical mountain.

And you won't even have to say "I think I can, I think I can" while it's playing.


Click here to read Fred Flaxman's interview with John Marks.

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