The English composer Nicholas Marshall was born in Plymouth. He studied music at Dartington Hall school (Timothy Moore), Cambridge and the RCM (Anthony Milner). He also had lessons with Sir Lennox Berkeley. Later he returned to Dartington to join the teaching staff.
Marshall stands in the distinguished line of English lyrical composers with countryside affinities and a songster’s gift for word-setting. His experimentation and originality are within the bounds of a benevolent tonal tradition. This much is announced from the outset in his seven-poem cycle, The Birds . These poems are an anthology from Hardy, Belloc, Thomas, Yeats, Tennyson and James Reeves. Many of the poems are familiar from other composer’s settings. The forces are tenor and piano – common enough – but with the uncommon addition of recorder, played by that Northern powerhouse of the music world, John Turner. The skilled piano line tends to fall into the background in favour of the recorder the voice of which, though always chaste, is full of character. The songs are haunting and belong approximately in the same region as those of Ian Venables, Carey Blyton (not to be forgotten) and Geoffrey Bush. They are engagingly done. James Gilchrist – who sings on 26 of the 31 tracks – knows this style so well and this serves Marshall and the listener very well indeed.
Plaint is an early work with a curvaceous and very personable way for the cello. The solitary Yeats setting in The Birds was preceded by a six-poem all-Yeats setting in the shape of The Falling of the Leaves for high voice, treble recorder, cello and harpsichord. The poems selected include the famous The Cloths of Heaven and The Fiddler of Dooney (Gurney and Bax). These are subtle settings with very nicely crafted moods and atmospheres. Especially impressive is the sinister and rapid-creeping The Host of the Air – a touch of Britten’s Lyke-Wake Dirge about it; a triumph. This early cycle is quite approachable but the language is more oblique than the works dating from the 2000s.
The economically scored Recorder Concerto is by no means a skip and dance affair. There are three movements: a mercurial, brisk and searching first gives way to a bone-chilly cantabile second and a flibbertigibbet determined finale. The six-song James Reeves cycle is for tenor and piano. These are again full of character. The Nocturnal is particularly striking with masterly simplicity in the piano part to offset the haunting treatment of the words. Catullus to Lesbia is another of those great thrown-off and carefree English songs. It’s comparable with Poulenc’s most joyous melodies. Among the Three Songs the deliciously wicked The World State stands out. The Nightingale , voiced by the recorder sings from a dense undergrowth of writing for string quartet. The final Four Folk Songs (voice, flute and piano) nicely catch the mood and specifics with the two central songs very movingly set and sung.
Mr Turner is a leading voice and sponsor behind this disc alongside a list of other Marshall benefactors whose names read like a roll-call from the vital ranks of active British musical society. Joining this list are the Finzi Trust and the Budleigh Music Festival.
The notes are in English only with commentary from the composer about each piece. There are artist profiles too. The sung words are reproduced in full and everything is presented with typographical clarity. It’s a pity though that we are told nothing about Marshall’s other music.
This is not the first Marshall disc. In 2000 the late Colin Scott-Sutherland, much missed, reviewed an all-Marshall CD. This was issued by the Manchester music shop Forysths. The present disc also proclaims the composer’s Manchester connections.