Recorder Magazine

“It would not, by the way, be an unrewarding prospect if modern composers were to include parts for recorders in their orchestral and chamber works, and would use them occasionally in, or as, accompaniment to songs.” So wrote Manuel Jacobs (an early pupil of Edgar Hunt) in the mid-1930s at a time when there was a movement to establish for the recorder, previously associated with the early music revival, a contemporary repertoire. Fortunately Jacobs lived long enough to see the fruits of his exhortation heeded, and would have been delighted that the recorder’s repertoire has continued to be enriched by its inclusion in chamber music and songs.

Nicholas Marshall is a composer who has frequently and effectively scored for the recorder in his chamber music and songs. Of the four groups of original songs in the present programme, two include recorder. The Birds , composed in 1999, for voice, recorder and piano, sets two poems by Thomas Hardy and one each by Hilaire Belloc, W B Yeats, Edward Thomas, Tennyson and James Reeves. Though all the songs feature birds, they cover a wide range of subject and mood, from tenderness in Belloc’s The Birds, to the uneasy drama of W B Yeats’s Leda and the Swan. The recorder, perhaps because of the subject matter, rarely imitates birdsong, but contributes to the overall atmosphere of the settings with subtle melodic invention.

The Falling of the Leaves, scored for voice, treble recorder, cello and harpsichord, dates from thirty years before The Birds and sets six poems by W B Yeats. In The White Birds the recorder does contribute birdsong-like figuration; there is a an uneasy but insistent dance-like tread in the distinctly Brittenesque The Hosts of the Air; the cello alone accompanies The Fiddler of Dooney, but the most intense music is contained in the concluding He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, colouring typical Yeatsian imagery – “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

The other two groups of songs, scored for voice and piano; Music in the Wood (six songs setting poems by James Reeves) and Three Short Songs (poems by G K Chesterton) date from 2000 and 2003 respectively. There is the same consistency of word setting we find in the earlier and later songs, and also a harmonic language sometimes tinged with a French accent – perhaps influence of Lennox Berkeley, with whom Marshall had lessons. Nevertheless, they are stamped with Marshall’s own musical personality while being fully in the rich tradition of English song.

Nicholas Marshall’s Recorder Concerto was first performed in 2004 at the inaugural concert celebrating the opening of the new auditorium at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Its three movements, on the usual fast – slow – fast plan, are scored for recorder (treble in the first two and descant in the finale) and string quartet, thereby ensuring balance between soloist and ensemble (though there is a version with small string orchestra). The opening Animato contrasts rugged and more delicate music nevertheless founded on the same thematic material and features a restrained but telling cadenza before the quiet close. The Molto adagio middle movement is both wistful and warm; a flow of expressive recorder melody unfolds above rich harmonies for the strings, which sometimes make their own melodic contribution. The final Molto vivace is brittle and energetic – brilliantly effective recorder and string writing bringing an impressive work to a very satisfying conclusion. It is a particularly significant contribution to the recorder’s concerto repertoire.

Also scored for descant recorder and string quartet is The Nightingale (Fantasia on a Welsh folk-song), composed to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of composer Ian Parrott. The recorder’s outpour of birdsong and fragments of the folksong (Eos Lais) eventually lead to a statement of the tune in its entirety at the close. An occasional piece, but a substantial and evocative addition to the repertoire.

The programme also contains the haunting Plaint for cello and piano, composed, like The Falling of the Leaves, in 1969, and concludes with four of a set of seven folk-song settings published in 1994 for voice, recorder and piano. The disarmingly simple, but highly expressive settings of Ye Banks and Braes and Ca’ the Yowes are irresistible.

Music of this quality deserves and stimulates dedicated performances, which it duly receives on what is a very welcome disc.

—Andrew Mayes