Nicholas Marshall, born in Plymouth, UK in 1942, studied initially at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge before attending the Royal College of Music in London to study under Anthony Milner and Lennox Berkeley. His music is radiantly tonal; one might even say valiantly traditional. It’s luxury casting to have tenor James Gilchrist as the vocalist here. His singing of the song-cycle The Birds (to texts by a variety of poets including Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, and Tennyson) is pure joy. Gilchrist’s tone is golden and pure. The cycle is for tenor, recorder, and piano, and John Turner’s recorder contributions add a distinct flavor to the piece. Gilchrist’s evenness of tone over his range and his seamless legato, coupled with his understanding of the music at hand, leads to a near-hypnotic experience (especially in the repeated patterns of the fifth movement, “Snow” and in the final “The Swan,” with its ululating piano accompaniment). These characteristics return in the cycle The Falling of the Leaves for tenor, cello, recorder, and harpsichord to poems by W. B. Yeats. Written in 1969, its scoring is fascinating. The military aspect of the second song, “The Host of the Air” is impeccably reflected in the harpsichord’s imitation of drums and the recorder’s piping.
The cycle Music in the Wood, to poems by James Reeves, is rather animated, reflecting the underlying unease in the poetry. Gilchrist’s perfectly judged intervals add the final layer of expressivity to Marshall’s lines, be it in a lyrical line or in the more disjunct, rapid-fire “You in Anger” (the third movement). Perhaps the most impressive song on the disc is “Ultimate,” the first of the Three Short Songs, a song replete with mystery, and the absolute antithesis to the witty central “The World State.”
The cello and piano Plaint (dating from 1969) boasts a melody that could surely only come from the British Isles. The piece is all the more effective for its brevity (3:28), yet seems to pack quite a journey into that timeframe. The last of the purely instrumental pieces is the recorder concerto, scored for recorder and string quartet (the diminished accompaniment in recognition of the fact that the recorder is easily overpowered). The overall impression is of gentleness: When we hear counterpoint, it speaks more of tender interchange than of any sort of rigor. Yet there is real power to some of the harmonies of the central Molto Adagio, so much so that its force seems to hang over the generally jaunty finale. A “Fantasia on a Welsh Folk Song,” The Nightingale is scored for the same forces. Marshall’s writing underscores the nostalgia at the heart of the tune before exploring its chirpier (pardon the pun) aspects. The tune only appears in its full aspect towards the end of the piece.
The disc ends with the delightful Four Folk Songs (actually four of a set of seven published in 1994). Gilchrist perfectly captures the spirit of each and every one. Impeccably English, one might suggest, and the perfect way to end a most enjoyable disc.