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John MARSH (1752-1828)
Symphony No. 6 in D (1796) [18:29]
Conversation Symphony for Two Orchestras in E flat (1778) [10:44]
Symphony No. 2 in B flat (1780) [14:52]
Symphony No. 7 in E flat (La Chasse) (1790) [10:04]
Symphony No. 8 in G (1778) [9:54]
London Mozart Players/Matthias Bamert
rec. St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 26-27 October 2006
CHANDOS CHAN10458 [64:05]
Experience Classicsonline

If the name of John Marsh is not well known today, it most certainly would have been in musical circles near the South Coast of England towards the end of the 18th century. More specifically in Salisbury, Canterbury and Chichester, the towns in which he lived successively between 1774 and the end of his life, and in which he played a very large part in organising local musical life.

As a lawyer and later a property owner he was always a musical amateur – he wrote in 1823 that “tho’ I have published several Musical works of various kinds I am no Professor of Music, nor ever was”. He was nonetheless more than capable as a player of various instruments, including the organ and violin, and plainly a very energetic, tactful and effective musical administrator, virtually running the musical scene in the various cities in which he lived. How he found time for this and his professional and social life when he was also a busy composer is unclear. 

His Journals, edited by Brian Robins and published by Pendragon Press in 1998, give a fascinating record of musical life all over England in the latter part of the 18th century and contain many episodes which will be familiar to anyone involved in amateur performance today. They indicate that he wrote 39 Symphonies, three Concertos, fifteen Concertos “in the Ancient Style” and twelve String Quartets, as well as much keyboard and vocal music. Unfortunately most of these have not survived, but nine of the symphonies were published in his lifetime and have been edited in recent years by Ian Graham-Jones, who also writes the admirable notes accompanying this disc.

Although this is part of the series entitled “Contemporaries of Mozart”, which Marsh certainly was, that is not really relevant to his symphonies which are much closer to the works of J.C. Bach, Pleyel and, perhaps above all, Haydn. The first work on the disc – No. 6 in D (actually his 27th) – was specifically written “upon the plan of Haydn’s modern ones”. He had indeed heard the first performances of some of Haydn’s London Symphonies and was obviously eager to copy them. Unlike the others on this disc, it is in four movements, with a slow introduction followed by a wonderfully bracing first movement built largely on a repeated note rhythm. The performance here fully realizes its potential, with more than an occasional nod towards period practice. Marsh himself seems to have been amazingly patient in the face of performances where instruments were missing or simply badly played, but listening to the performances here we can hear what it is that he was aiming at. 

The Conversation Symphony has been recorded at least twice before, but it thoroughly merits another version. The orchestra is not divided wholly in two, as with the Symphonies for Double Orchestra by J.C. Bach, but instead the first comprises oboes, violins bassoon and cellos, and the second horns, divided violas, cellos and bass, with timpani in the middle. With such rich colours to play with Marsh is able to produce wonderfully imaginative effects in this comparatively short piece. The Symphony No. 7 has as its programme the stages of a hunt – the first movement is “The Hunter’s Call in the Morning and gradually assembling together”, the second “Setting out from Home (trotting and occasionally cantering) – The Fox discovered” and the third simply “Chasse”, ending quietly, perhaps suggesting that the listener is no longer able to keep up with the hunt. This is another work full of imaginative touches and well worth hearing. 

The remaining works are perhaps less striking - and contrary to the statement on the back of the cover No. 2 is not another “La Chasse” - but they are both pleasant and well written, somewhat like a mixture of J.C. Bach and Arne. All five are very well played and recorded and left me waiting eagerly for a second disc which could include the remaining Symphonies and the Three Finales dating from 1799 to 1801. How welcome a disc of his choral and keyboard music would be also, but this is being greedy. In the meantime I must give an very warm welcome to the present disc which can be recommended to any enthusiast for music of this period.

John Sheppard



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