Matthias Bamert

John Marsh: Symphonies

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In the eighteenth century, there were some advantages to being a "dilettante" or amateur musician; if you were a nobleman, you might even choose a false name or that of another composer under which to publish your work, in order not to compromise one's status as gentry. Or, if you were like John Marsh, a prosperous barrister that played the organ, composed symphonies, and organized subscription concerts in his spare time, you could use a silly pseudonym like "Sharm" that everyone could see through. Under this name, Marsh published his most ambitious work, the Conversation Symphony of 1778, ostensibly scored for two orchestras, but sharing the same string group -- the winds alone are divided and the continuo is brought to the front. This Stokowskian reimagining of the orchestra was quite novel in its day and the symphony remained a favorite in England for quite some time after Marsh retired from public life in 1811. Marsh's other eight surviving symphonies -- of the 39 he produced altogether -- have not fared quite as well in posterity in comparison to the "Conversation." On Chandos' John Marsh: Symphonies, an entry in its "Contemporaries of Mozart" series, four other symphonies are given a hearing in addition to the "Conversation"; this is only the second all-Marsh disc ever released, an earlier effort on Olympia having come and gone a long while ago.

Apart from his notable rethinking of orchestral seating, Marsh generally does not score high marks for originality here; his symphonic works are sometimes derivative of Haydn, and bear a trace of retention, to some degree, of Handel's typical approach toward writing for winds. Nevertheless, it is ambitious work, well crafted, tuneful, and admirably variable; Marsh could have been a professional composer if he had been willing to accept the lousy pay that came with the job. The scant surviving musical work of Marsh forms merely the tail of the large beast that is his work in words, including a 37-volume memoir, undiscovered until the 1990s, that details every performance and composition Marsh created up until the time he turned 50. It is a highly informative resource on the musical world of its time, but as in the case of Arthur Friedheim's book Life and Liszt, hardly anything he mentions in terms of music still survives. As in the other entries in the "Contemporaries of Mozart" series, Matthias Bamert and the London Mozart Players bring in an idiomatic, polished, relaxed, and period appropriate performance that does justice to the music, but never quite knocks your socks off. Given Marsh's tendency toward the Handelian and the "Hunt" Symphony here, Bamert could have afforded to let his hair down a little more in these works. Chandos' sound is warm, dark, a bit quiet, and somewhat lacking in high frequencies, but is certainly better than merely acceptable.

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