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John MARSH (1752-1828)
Five Symphonies: No. 1 in B flat [10:13]; No. 3 in d [9:14]; No. 4 in F [11:21]; No. 6 in D [20:11]; Conversation Symphony for Two Orchestras [13:27]
The Chichester Concert/Ian Graham-Jones
rec. July 1989, Chichester
ALTO ALC1017 [64:24]
Experience Classicsonline

From the 17th and 18th centuries we know some composers who presented themselves as 'amateurs'. This means they didn't compose for a living, mostly because they belonged to the upper echelons of society and either didn't need to work at all or worked in public service. The English composer John Marsh was also an amateur, but of a different kind. His father was captain in the Royal Navy, and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. But Marsh was more interested in music, and he persuaded his father to allow him to undertake legal training and he became an apprentice of a solicitor in Romsey. Meanwhile he learned to play the violin and several other instruments. Marsh set up practice in Romsey and he founded a series of subscription concerts for which he himself wrote some compositions. In 1776 he moved to Salisbury where he entered into a partnership. Here he also played an important role in musical life. He played the violin in the subscription concert series of which he became leader in 1780. He wrote symphonies which were performed during the subscription concerts as well as during the Salisbury Festival.

In 1783 he moved to Kent and immediately became involved in the Canterbury Concert which he transformed into a successful organisation. In 1787 he and his family moved to Chichester where he was to remain for the rest of his life. Here again he was able to bring the subscription concerts at a higher level as their manager and leader. During his career he also wrote about music and in 1808 he published the Cathedral Chant Book, laying the foundations for the reform of Anglican psalm chanting.

For an amateur this biography is quite impressive. Unfortunately a considerable number of his compositions have been lost. His output comprised, among others, 40 symphonies. Of these only the 'Eight Favorite Symphonies' which were published between 1784 and 1800 and 'A Conversation Symphony' have survived. Four of the 'Favorite Symphonies' are performed here. Marsh's symphonies are written in early classical style, and there is clearly some influence of Johann Christian Bach. That is in particular the case in the 'Conversation Symphony' which is written for two orchestras, like several of Johann Christian's symphonies. The two groups, one for high and the other for low instruments, conduct a dialogue which explains the symphony's name. Interesting is also the Symphony No. 6 from the set of eight: the first movement begins with a slow introduction, just like the symphonies by Haydn. This symphony can be considered a homage to Haydn whose music Marsh greatly admired.

This is one of the two symphonies on this disc which has four movements: the third movements of this symphony and of the Symphony No 4 are menuets. It is rather odd that in this recording the closing movement of the latter symphony is left out. The booklet doesn't tell whether the first release was on vinyl; this could explain the omission of this movement. These compositions are definitely worth to be performed and recorded, and from that perspective this reissue can be welcomed. But I seriously doubt whether the interpretation does Marsh a favour.

The performances are sympathetic and certainly not bad. But they are not up to today's standards, and even in 1989, when this recording was originally made, there were orchestras which performed technically better and provided better interpretations. Technically these performances are not top-notch: there are a number of passages where the intonation leaves something to be desired and the playing is less sophisticated and less polished than one may wish. I also think the tutti passages are a bit massive and lack clarity.

But it is also the interpretation which doesn't do real justice to Marsh's compositions. The dynamics are too flat: more dynamic contrasts between notes and dynamic shades on single notes as well as the use of crescendi and diminuendi would have made these performances much more expressive and captivating. The two menuets are rather ponderous and their rhythm isn't very well exposed.

It is really important that these symphonies are recorded, and this disc has aroused my curiosity about other works by John Marsh. Therefore I hope some first-rate orchestra is going to record at least some of his orchestral works. Only such performances could convince the sceptical music lover that the music of this amateur is really worthwhile.

Johan van Veen

Editor' Note: John Sheppard was more impressed by the Chandos recording of Marsh's symphonies, including the 'Conversation' and No. 6, by the London Mozart Players conducted by Matthias Bamert (see review).


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