John Marsh Symphonies

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.6 in D
Conversation Symphony for Two Orchestras
Symphony No.2 in B flat
Symphony No.7 in E flat (La Chasse)
Symphony No.8 in G

London Mozart Players
Matthias Bamert

Recorded 26 & 27 October 2006 in St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: April 2008
CHAN 10458
Duration: 64 minutes



My first introduction to John Marsh (1752-1828) was a performance of his String Quartet in B flat, which he subtitled “in the stile of Haydn’s Opera Prima”. Haydn’s early quartets were very popular in London long before that composer made his famous visits to the city in the 1790s. Marsh’s tribute to him was written in 1772, it is in the same five-movement form as Haydn’s Opus 1/Number 1 – its themes are entirely Marsh’s own and it is a very skilful and attractive composition. Without reservation I can say that its quality is as high as that of the work to which it pays tribute and I welcome any opportunity to hear Marsh’s music.

Marsh was very much a symphonist and although today’s musicians only have access to the nine that were published, his output in this genre was nearly as great as that of Mozart. Opinions differ as to how many symphonies Marsh composed. Recent writings have suggested that the number is either 37 or 40 but I respect the opinion of the great expert on English 18th-century symphonists, Charles Cudworth, who believes that there are at least 41.

The excellent booklet-note for Chandos’s release is by Ian Graham-Jones. He modestly avoids mentioning that he has made editions of several of Marsh’s symphonies and carefully refers to Marsh as “not having trained as a professional musician” whereas Cudworth describes him as a “gifted dilettante, violinist, organist and composer”. Graham-Jones explains that in his early years in Portsmouth when studying law, Marsh also found time to teach himself the spinet, organ, viola, cello and oboe. He was a South-of-England man, residing in Canterbury, Salisbury and finally Chichester.

Marsh’s remarkable skills are well represented in this interesting selection of orchestral works. The ‘Conversation Symphony’ is clearly inspired by those J. C. Bach works within his Opus 18 that were written for double orchestra. Chandos’s booklet incorporates Marsh’s diagram specifying the distribution of the two orchestras in this work and the recording’s convincing lateral spread makes Marsh’s imaginative use of orchestral layout very apparent. Unfortunately I hear no centrally–placed harpsichord and although the timpanist makes a commendably in-period sound by using hard sticks I could have wished for the recording to focus on these instruments a little more distinctly particularly when playing at levels lower than forte. This is overcome in the finale with crisp and forceful attack. Bamert can be forgiven for turning this movement into a lively Allegro even though the marking is Allegretto.

Turning to the symphonies proper, No.2 (incorrectly designated ‘La Chasse’ on the back cover) is in three honestly tuneful movements the last of which includes hints of Mozart, but I cannot understand why Bamert allows the horns to play in the lower octave. In the 18th-century the B flat basso horn would be used for wind serenades or military music but it seems to have no value in symphonies where these instruments would almost always be crooked an octave higher.

How refreshing by contrast is the adventurous use of horns in No.7 (the real ‘La Chasse’), which is the composer’s twenty-fourth Symphony. In the score he explains the equestrian pacing, the progress of the hunt and the significance of the hunting calls. The work ends with the hunt in full cry. All this is couched in symphonic form and the London Mozart Players give a delightfully rhythmic performance with superb horn-playing.

Symphony No.8 was composed twelve years earlier (but not published until ten years later) and makes use of many concertante passages – much as in Haydn’s ‘Morning’, ‘Noon’ and ‘Evening’ trilogy (symphonies 6 to 8). Whereas Haydn’s work is early enough to retain Baroque overtones, Marsh incorporates dramatic inflections of a later period. This is a strong work with themes that progress with firm logic – I even hear a harpsichord in the slow movement sensitively accompanying the several violin solos, albeit recorded too distantly. The finale is delightful, based on a very jolly tune, but the melodies of the first two movements are far from inspired.

Symphony No.6 – described by Marsh as his twenty-seventh symphony – is the latest of his works recorded here. The composer confesses to composing the symphony “on the plan of Haydn’s modern ones”. This work is for an orchestra including trumpets and timpani (here more clearly recorded than in the ‘Conversation Symphony’). It is the only piece here to have a slow introduction and four movements. Its construction is admirable with a real feeling of progress and dramatic development in the Allegro spirituoso (sic) first movement. The succeeding Andante is an excellent foil, instrumentation is carefully worked out with charming use of flute, yet this movement typifies the composer’s weakness: the construction and instrumentation are both excellent but the melody on which the Andante is based, is seriously lacking in inspiration. The Minuet is very grand. Brass-writing incorporates effective answering phrases between trumpets and horns yet should one be reminded so overwhelmingly of a minuet from Handel’s Water Music? The optimistic finale – here taken very swiftly – represents an ideally judged conclusion, yet for all the feeling of cheerful well-being and the excellent orchestration, enhanced by many exciting contrasts in dynamics, the melodies are plain and unimaginative.

I really don’t mind that Marsh lacks the inspiration of Haydn whom he so much admires because this is an excellent presentation of worthy, well-constructed works. Those attracted to this music might also like to explore an Olympia disc (OCD 400) performed very appropriately by the Chichester Consort. Ian Graham-Jones conducts what were at that time (1989) first recordings. They include two works (Symphony No.6 and ‘Conversation Symphony’) which are also in Bamert’s selection but in addition symphonies 1 3 and 4 are presented. The playing is far less precise than that of the London Mozart Players but it would still be a useful acquisition for those drawn to this talented and much neglected composer.

Marsh admirers should be grateful for Graham-Jones’s practical championship of this composer – that Bamert is able to obtain more polished performances should not be held against him, and his booklet notes (he is the writer for both discs) are very well written and hugely informative. Those wishing to get to know this music should start with the Chandos recording – I recommend it highly – but I am delighted to possess both.

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