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Roger MARSH (b. 1949)
Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire – vocal settings of all fifty of the Rondels Bergamasques (2002-2006) [100.47]
Linda Hirst (mezzo); Joe Marsh (narrator)
Hilliard Ensemble; Red Byrd; Juice Trio; Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson
rec. University of York, 2002, 2005, 2006. DDD
NMC D127 [50.00 + 50.47]



Roger Marsh is too little known as a significant composer. NMC are all the more to be thanked for releasing this major work and for having done so without the acoustic flaws sometimes associated with the label.

Marsh is one of several professors at York University and this work was recorded there over a period of two years while he completed the whole cycle. It has little to do with Schoenberg’s famed settings in which the composer tackled only 21 of the whole set of fifty ‘Rondels bergamasques’.

Schoenberg set Otto Hartleben’s German translations from the original French - Giraud was Belgian. He did this, I think, without reading the texts carefully enough. His priority in 1912 was to launch Sprechstimme. Around him Europe was cracking up and he, as a Jew, wanted to make an expressionist statement.

We often forget that Austria-Hungary had been decaying long before Sarajevo sparked a war. Anti-Semitism as well as anti-Magyar ideas were rife and oppressive in Vienna, so if Schoenberg didn’t show respect for Giraud I think we can perhaps understand. He was seen as a minor Belgian poet: shades of ‘famous Belgian’ jokes.

Roger Marsh gets inside the poems - dense Symbolist stuff - as successfully as he penetrates James Joyce. I should like to see his scholarship in that area recognised separately from his Joyce musical settings. ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ is massively dense and Marsh’s Joyce writings have solved a few problems for me … and I’m an Irish resident with dual nationality.

Alas Marsh’s remarkable ‘Not a Soul but Ourselves’ (1977) from ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ is unavailable after a brief release on Wergo. I have the world premiere on tape and when Roger and Electric Phoenix asked me not to play it on BBC or RTE radio I was sent a copy of the Wergo by an EP member at a silly price.

Marsh’s music needs hearing because it’s expertly made with performers and listeners in mind but it is far more than just expertly put together. I see Roger Marsh as a very important composer – although to get the best out his music one needs some experience and a sharp ear for precision. He cannot be ‘pigeon-holed’ and that’s why we need more.

The older David Bedford (older by 12 years) is another top-quality English composer who has a release on NMC. Both composers have an utterly amazing insight into literature and musical education but are ignored at home.

Trying to explain Marsh’s double NMC would waste my time and that of readers. Some music, especially with a text and narrator, just needs to be heard. The excellent notes describe how this essential recording happened.

I would, however, draw attention to track 17 on CD2 when Marsh uses chord structures very like those in Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’. They are punctuated by drum and bass activity and then return to the ambivalent integrity of Stravinsky.

The abiding clarity of voices against selected instruments returns in track 28 where Marsh is seemingly attracted back to late Stravinsky. This communicates with the sort of tight spareness beloved of the Old Man in his swan-song CBS recordings.

Where Marsh really scores with his extremely precise allocation of very clear French and English settings across several ensembles lies in the lifting of Giraud’s poems from minor status to what they truly are. The imagery is well ahead of its time, even including some rather brutal ideas. He was less of a fey ‘Symboliste’ than the mainstream of Valéry, Mallarmé and Verlaine and far closer to the Surrealists and Apollinaire. There are linkages also to Maeterlinck in his mixture of imagination and references.

This is very much Marsh territory. He doesn’t like to wander through perfumed fog so what we hear is a treat of sheer sound as well as being an intellectual challenge. This is a challenge we should accept and demand more Marsh releases. We should as also try to get hold of his earlier recordings from California and the important ‘Not a Soul But Ourselves’ held by the Polygram empire.

The NMC engineers here get things just right except for the ‘Chopin’ track which is too quiet - recorded earlier than the rest. A glitch of this sort is trivial when the overall performance and the work itself is so important.

Value for money is 100% because who knows much about Albert Giraud except for the asides we read in relation to Schoenberg’s Hartleben translations? Here we get the whole cycle of poems. Marsh has that rare talent for a composer of being incisively gifted with complex texts. Avoid the high prices of ‘imported’ copies and buy from your local record shop, NMC or MWI. If you do you will hear important music and encounter a remarkable set of poems. These are coupled with quite brilliant insert notes of a quality such as we seldom see.

I usually have a whinge in my reviews but this NMC double has zipped my cynicism. I have admired Marsh’s music for many years. I recommend this release to all who have intellectual curiosity and who love great music of our time.

Like David Bedford, Roger Marsh loves literature and structure. He also has a rock-solid musical grounding in a special British tradition which we are in danger of losing unless great music of this calibre is actually heard and not locked away from us.

Buy and enjoy this marvellous, honest music then see if you want to hear more. If so, there are Marsh recordings in existence that merit liberation. This NMC release is Marsh in top form but there is much else recorded and hidden – as with other very important composers. I hope that a free and welcoming response to this disc will go some way towards breaking the tyranny. All tyranny is ugly but the corporate sort which produces cultural deprivation is worse by far.

Just listen, read the poems on your third hearing and be grateful that we still have original composers and firms like NMC to buck the trend.

A sheer feast with dreams left over. Marsh shows the greatness of Giraud’s haunting images.

Stephen Hall

Detailed track-listing

CD1
1. Hilliard Ensemble/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 1 Théâtre
2. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 2 Décor
3. Red Byrd/Juice/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 3 Pierrot Dandy
4. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 4 Déconvenue
5. Anna Maria Friman, soprano/John Potter, tenor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 5 Lune au lavoir
6. Richard Wistreich, bass/Juice/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 6 La Serenade de Pierrot
7. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 7 Cuisine lyrique
8. Juice/Omar Sharhyar, beatbox/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 8 Arlequinade
9. Hilliard Ensemble/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 9 Pierrot polaire
10. Red Byrd/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 10 A Colombine
11. Red Byrd/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 11 Arlequin
12. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 12 Les nuages
13. Hilliard Ensemble/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 13 A mon cousin de Bergame
14. Red Byrd/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 14 Pierrot Voleur
15. Juice/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 15 Spleen
16. Red Byrd/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 16 Ivresse de lune
17. Red Byrd/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 17 Chanson de la potence
18. Linda Hirst, mezzo-soprano/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 18 Suicide
19. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 19 Papillons noirs
20. Juice/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 20 Coucher de soleil
21. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 21 Lune malade
22. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part One: 22 Absinthe
CD 2
1. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 1 Mendiante de têtes
2. Juice/Naomi Morse, violin/Tim Smedley, cello/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 2 Décollation
3. Juice/Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 3 Rouge et blanc
4. Matthew Collins, Junko Matsuda, Simon Green, Alex Shepherd - piano/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 4 Valse de Chopin
5. Juice/Matthew Collins, organ/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 5 L’église
6. Matthew Long, tenor/Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 6 Evocation
7. Ebor Singers/Matthew Collins, organ/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 7 Messe rouge
8. Matthew Long, Chris O’Gorman - tenor/Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 8 Les croix
9. Linda Hirst, mezzo-soprano/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 9 Supplique
10. Juice/Christian Mason, violin/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 10 Violon de lune
11. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 11 Les cigognes
12. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 12 Nostalgie
13. Matthew Long, tenor/Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 13 Parfums de Bergame
14. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 14 Départ de Pierrot
15. Red Byrd/Juice/Anna Myatt, soprano/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 15 Pantomime
16. Red Byrd/Juice/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 16 Brosseur de Lune
17. Juice/Omar Sharhyar, beatbox/Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 17 L’alphabet
18. Red Byrd/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 18 Blancheurs sacrées
19. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 19 Poussière rose
20. Red Byrd/Juice/Anna Myatt, soprano/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 20 Parodie
21. Red Byrd/Anna Maria Friman, soprano/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 21 Lune moqueuse
22. Helena Daffern, solo/Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 22 La Lanterne
23. Red Byrd/Juice/Anna Myatt, soprano/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 23 Pierrot cruel
24. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 24 Décor
25. Red Byrd/Juice/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 25 Le miroir
26. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 26 Souper sur l’eau
27. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 27 L’escalier
28. Ebor Singers/Paul Gameson, conductor/Joe Marsh, narrator - Part Two: 28 Cristal de Bohême

 


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