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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
The EMI Beecham orchestral recordings 1927-1938 on Naxos Historical
Three Volumes

AAD
Three CDs at special price in a single card slip-case. Each available separately.
Full listings at foot of review
NAXOS 8.503148 [61.11+62.42+66.12]


Naxos have put us in their debt with these revivals of connoisseur recordings. Of course the sound is antique and mono but the performances are cherished documents and still wonderfully enjoyable. At one time it seemed unthinkable that transfers of this sterling quality could be available at bargain price. I recall buying the seven LP set on World Record Club LPs at some hideous price. Naxos have turned that world on its head.

The delectable woodwind solos point up how strong a line-up Beecham was able to choose. Eventyr is a favourite of mine alongside the breezy North Country Sketches and Paris. Eventyr is spiritually akin to Grieg's Peer Gynt - a Nordic romance leaning Bax-wards and having more narrative backbone than is common for Delius. The goblin 'shout' could however have been done with less English reserve and more wild abandon - a much better fist is made of this in the recent Danacord version. The sound quality is clean with a whisper of hiss remaining so as not to rob the natural ambience of the originals. The same is true of all three discs in the sequence although be warned that some critics have found the processing to produce a synthetic sound. I have not encountered problems on that front.

It now seems, in retrospect, such a tragedy that Beecham never recorded the complete operas. Imagine a Beecham Koanga, Fennimore and Gerda, Magic Fountain and Irmelin! To tantalise we have the final scene from Koanga with its recollections of Appalachia. The choir here shows up the limitations of the sound.

The two Hassan snippets are done with a light touch and the Serenade's plumed delicacy has never been equalled (Paul Beard is the solo violinist) although Vernon Handley comes close on EMI Eminence. Rae Jenkins conducted the BBC Welsh SO for the famous broadcast of the Flecker play back in 1972. That performance closely rivals the Beecham in sensitivity. Does anyone out there have the complete broadcast in stereo? Do contact me urgently if you have it (0151 423 3783).

Paris is Delius's rhapsodically headstrong picture of the city whose raffish delights drew him in like a whirlpool. His years there left this memento but also the disease that crippled him. This Song of a Great City, in its opening measures, parallels Vaughan Williams' A London Symphony but soon casts off such thoughts in an accumulation of tension, expectation, dreamy romance and an exuberance common to the wilder stretches of Ravel's La Valse. At the close the listener is taken back to another dawn, drowsing exhausted near a fountain.

First class sleeve notes by Lyndon Jenkins are a strength of the series although no sung texts are provided. Naxos have not been helped by the rather drab livery chosen for the first issue of these discs. The light card slipcase now used to freshen the series is much better in that respect and should help shift these three discs from the warehouse shelves.

Volume 2

This version of the Walk is reckoned the best amongst the various Beecham recordings. It was this 78 that was played on the BBC on the night of Delius's death in 1934. It has some of the most magical woodwind playing as also does the Fennimore Intermezzo which is a piece created by Eric Fenby from the preludes to scenes 10 and 11 of the opera.

Sea Drift is major Delius and no mistake. It is among his most touching large-scale statements and is full of highlights. John Brownlee's dark and tawny-tobacco tones are perfect here although there that stilted accent of the 1930s - a shade disconcerting now. Bruce Boyce recorded the work with Beecham much later for CBS (now Sony). A Mass of Life was not recorded at that time, perhaps because its dense textures were too demanding for the technology of the time. For that we had to wait until the 1950s. Notable in Sea Drift are the choirs' 'shine great sun! and Brownlee's heartbroken (but not sobbed) 'We two together no more.' No texts provided, I am afraid.

Beecham's In a Summer Garden is alive with streams, insect noises and breezes rustling the branches. If the Garden is enclosed like something from Alain Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes, Over the Hills and Far Away is open and speaks of the same great spaces that enliven his masterpiece, The Song of the High Hills.

Volume 3

When first issued the Delius Society volumes were luxury items available only to the moneyed classes. These each comprised seven weighty 78s and a booklet written by A. K. Holland, all encased in a heavy box embossed with an outline of Delius's head. This added to the exclusivity of the exercise. The set was issued in 1938, a year before the Second World War and four years after the composer's death. More than sixty years later Naxos completed the sequence in well produced and modestly 'processed' discs presenting all the early Delius Society volumes at super bargain price.

Appalachia is historically significant because, as Lyndon Jenkins points out in his accompanying notes, this was the work that initiated the Beecham-Delius story. Beecham was immediately captivated when he heard Fritz Cassirer conduct it in London in 1907. It consists of a set of rhapsodic variations on a slave spiritual - another memento from his Florida plantation years. It is the antithesis of the ‘nigger minstrel’ plantation songs of the vaudeville and music-hall of the time: a languid river dream, stern or joyful at moments, but largely a great, slow, inexorable journey paralleling Sali and Vreli’s voyage to a warm and tragic oblivion. It is a work of great beauty and is remarkably well sustained over thirty-seven minutes. The choir's part is modest. This is largely an orchestral piece. The only blemish to modern ears is the solo tenor whose diction is perfect but whose style must now seem as dated to us as the style of singers of the present decade will seem when heard in 2070.

Apart from the alert and springy Brigg Fair, recorded in 1928, all the tracks were set down in 1938. You might have expected a dramatic improvement in quality from Brigg Fair to La Calinda but the difference is in fact pretty modest.

These are historical recordings gently reprocessed to suppress clicks and other blemishes. The level of intervention is sensitively done so as not to intrude on the music itself.

Hassan is rather earthbound when it should have been ethereal. Irmelin and the Florida memento (La Calinda) will not disappoint.

Though some may quibble about the sound this inexpensive trio is a rewarding casement opened onto a performing tradition portrayed as the 'one true way'

Rob Barnett

FULL CONTENTS
DELIUS Orchestral Works - Vol. 1

On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Summer Night on the River
Eventyr
Koanga - Closing Scene
Hassan: Interlude; Serenade
Paris - Song of a Great City

RPO/LPO/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec: 1927-34 AAD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110904 [61.11]

DELIUS Orchestral Works - Vol. 2
The Walk to the Paradise Garden
Sea Drift

Fennimore and Gerda - Intermezzo
In a Summer Garden
Over the Hills and Far Away

John Brownlee (bar)
London Select Choir
RPO/LPO/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec: 1927-36 AAD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110905 [62.42]

DELIUS Orchestral Works - Vol. 3

Brigg Fair [13.45]
La Calinda [3.25]
Hassan - Closing scene [7.23]
Irmelin Prelude [4.12]
Appalachia [37.07]
Jan van der Gucht (ten)
Royal Opera Chorus
LPO/Beecham
rec: 1928-1938 AAD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110906 [66.12]




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