'Early Music Review' (UK): 18th Century British Symphonies CD GAU 216 (April 2001)

Reprinted From ‘Early Music Review’ (UK) April 2001.



18th Century British Symphonies CD GAU 216

The Hanover Band / Graham Lea-Cox


Thomas Erskine (Earl of Kelly) Periodical Overture No.17 in Eb

Arne Symphony No.4 in C minor; John Collett Symphony op.2 no.5 in Eb; William Smethergill Symphony op.5 no.2 in Bb; Symphony op.10 no.1 in E; John Marsh A Conversation Sinfonie in Eb.                                         71.26 minutes  For those with an interest in 18th century music this record is a must, and ranks as a companion to The String Quartet in 18th-cenury England and English Classical Violin Concertos, produced by Hyperion a couple of years ago. It is a shame that it has taken so long to produce a snapshot recording of typical symphonies, surely the most important genre of the Georgian period, but it has been worth waiting for. Graham Lea-Cox has obviously researched the repertoire and chosen some of the best works of the period for inclusion. The Edinburgh Earl’s contribution that opens the disc is a surprisingly fine work, particularly when it is realised that it’s date of publication, 1767, was only two or three years after the first symphonies had appeared in London, when J.C. Bach’s and Abel’s first set had their airing and the “modern” symphonic style was only beginning to filter through to the provinces. For this work (and for the Marsh – more of which later) the Hanover Band chose to use clarinets instead of oboes, an interesting decision as clarinet alternatives exist for these works and it was no doubt easier to obtain good clarinettists from the militia bands than oboists. The Arne symphony, only one of three or four in the minor mode in the English repertoire, is a stunning work, and little heard partly because of the lost flute parts, which have been reconstructed by Lea-Cox. For a work of the same date as the Kelly, the independent wind writing is remarkable. John Collett, whose six symphonies are dedicated to Kelly (and who retired to Edinburgh in 1770), is represented by the four-movement No. 5, published in the same year. While somewhat dependent on the Mannheim-like measured tremoli typical of the period, it contains some exciting music. The Smethergill, the latest work on the disc, is perhaps the least interesting musically and, for 1790, seems surprisingly conservative in style. The Andantino has some charming melodic writing while the finale has some stunning virtuoso playing from the inner strings. The Abel is the only symphony in a sharp key, unusually E major and, judging by this work alone, his later op.10 set of 1771 contains considerably better music than his earlier symphonies. Now nearly fifty, and the father of the English symphony, he preferred to be off on his annual jaunt to France to stock up on claret than attend his own concerts (according to Marsh’s Journals of 1779). John Marsh’s Conversation Symphony of 1778, written at the age of twenty-six while residing in Salisbury, is unique in pitting the higher instruments (violins, oboes and cello) against the lower (horns, divided violas and 2nd cello), linked by a continuo (on this recording a fortepiano) and reinforced by timpani in the tuttis. It was a pity that the extra manuscript flute part was used, as the flute, which doubles viola for much of the time (and was presumably written to keep a lone flute happy in one of his local concerts) spoils the high/low tessitura of the printed parts. This work was the most popular of Marsh’s forty listed symphonies – only nine of which are extant – receiving performances in Chichester as late as 1810. Programme notes, given the constraints of size and the necessity of translations, are most informative. The Hanover Band are at their best, the recording ambience is excellent, and this CD cannot be too highly recommended.  

Ian Graham-Jones