Somewhat in the dramatic cast of A Mass of Life
Delius's most successful opera starts in a tempest of stormily updrafting
energy. This catches the ruddy strength of the two warring farmers (Manz
and Marti) and their lust for a strip of land between their plots. The
strip belongs to the dispossessed Fiddler.
This opera is dreamlike and in its legato musical
contours has similarities to Pelléas et Mélisande.
This is not an opera of dowager divas, super-star tenors and straining
baritones. Its way is subtle, intensely poetic, regretful. This is accentuated
by the personal qualities of the cast and orchestra. At 10.44 (tk.1)
take as an example the detailed huskiness of the solo viola and the
swinging energy of the ploughmen akin to Housman, RVW and Gurney. Just
occasionally the accents of more than half a century ago may grate as
in tr.3 CD2 at 11.23 where the laughing is a arch and mannered.
It is intriguing to notice Delius's structuring for
this opera. There are eight sections comprising:- six scenes with scene
IV split into two parts and The Walk to the Paradise Garden standing
between the last scene and scene V. Most of the eight sections are of
a duration similar to a typical Delius orchestral poem like In a
Summer Garden or Song of Summer. The exception is the twenty-three
minute Paradise Garden scene - the last one.
Sound quality cannot be expected to be exemplary although
it is very respectable and enjoyable. There is an isolated scuff at
00.08 on track 2; a pity it couldn't have been swatted. However this
momentary blemish does not subvert the introspective pietist atmosphere;
nor the concentration on the gradient towards tragedy. When Sali sings
'all may yet be well again' you know that the couple are doomed.
The recording which was never intended for commercial
release is somewhat boxy but you will forgive its defects of age given
the passion and sensitive enthusiasm Beecham, his orchestra and all
the singers bring to this enterprise. To get a candid impression of
the quality of sound try tr.1 of CD2. Comparing this recording with
the EMI Classics' commercial recording of the opera the EMI has
the edge though a small one in terms of a more naturally contrived open
acoustic. Still, the Somm is kind to the voices. Listen for example,
at 8.40 on tr 4, to the explosive little climactic outburst from the
young lovers. Also notable in scene IV part 1 are the passionate cries
of the two [05.40]. Track 5 limns the phantasmal dream of Sali and Vreli
(part 2 of sc iv) and is in nature of a hymnal funereal cortege. Excitement
shines out too; listen to the cries of 'away, away, away' punched out
with excitement by the chorus.
In The Fair (tk 6) you can hear where Patrick
Hadley (who conducted Song of the High Hills with the Cambridge
University Music Society) picked up the exuberance of the wedding scene
from his own The Hills. It is interesting to compare this Delian
fair with the Vanity Fair scene from Vaughan Williams' Pilgrim's
Progress - an opera self-declared as being 'in the similitude of
a dream'. While RVW's unease with the libidinous abandon of the fair
is obvious Delius plunges into the 'dance of life' with corybantic relish
and Parisian abandon. Speaking of abandon listen at 2.13 of tr.2 (the
famous Walk) of CD2 and hear Beecham's barking grunt of encouragement.
The sound quality can be grainy and there are occasional
scuffs but very few clicks. One low cycling scuff can be heard at 1.40
in tr.3 CD2. The recording is in mono, of course, but the signal is
unapologetically strong and unwavering with no trace off-centre spindle
problems or swish.
At the end the watermen singing 'halleo' (sc. 6 13.33)
is quite magical as is the entwining sweetness of the solo violin a5t
3.43 in tr. 3 of CD2. The waterman's cries are just like the similar
calls at the close of Appalachia. These in turn touch on the
despair of Pervaneh and Rafi (from Flecker's Hassan) as they
commit themelsves to torture and death in return for a night of love
rather living never to see each other again. That same spirit also suffuses
Hassan's Pilgrim Song 'we take the Golden Road to Samarkand'.
While the reason the lovers thrown their lives away liebestod-style
does not bear too close attention the music ineluctably carries all
Inconsequential aside: Beecham was born in St Helens,
just up the road from where I am writing this review. Beecham had as
much tme for St Helens as Delius had for Bradford and Walton for Oldham.
Various buildings in St Helens still carry the Beecham name.
In the case of this opera competition is either thin
on the ground or non-existent ... currently. Meredith Davies 1972 ADD stereo
version (EMI) has recently made it to CD although I have not heard it
yet. By the way, Davies conducted the 1962 revival of the opera in Bradford
as part of the Delius Centenary Festival. Mackerras's early 1990s set,
also on video at one time, was issued on Argo.
The other famous EMI version is the Beecham commercial
studio recording made within a month of the BBC event preserved by this
SOMM set. This was issued in the LP era as part of a distinguished
World Record Club box (in the later of the two boxed Beecham/Delius
sets). Latterly (1992) EMI Classics issued this 1948 set on CMS
7 64386 2 as part of The Beecham Edition. Unlike the SOMM this included
the libretto or more accurately substantial extracts from the libretto
linked by a narrative, all compiled by Fenby in 1948 for the release
of the 78s. Currently this too is deleted. The EMI was fleshed out with
the Gordon Clinton version of Sea Drift but the timings still
seemed pretty miserly by comparison with the SOMM: EMI 63.23+60.52 as
against SOMM's 70.22+72.15. This timing is accounted for by the more
expansive approach in the BBC recording and by the fact that Songs
of Sunset are longer than the Clinton Sea Drift by about
The comparative timings for the two sets are fascinating
although please note that these figures are taken off the jewel box
inserts rather than timed with a stop-watch:-
Sc 1 16.33 16.16
Sc 2 11.27 9.40
Sc 3 14.37 12.26
Sc 4 Pt 1 15.10 13.25
Sc 4 Pt 2 12.27 11.17
Sc 5 8.24 8.10
Walk 10.20 8.38
Sc 6 23.36 21.05
The Somm insert booklet has notes (English only) by
Graham Melville-Mason and the introduction and synopsis to the opera,
by Eric Fenby. This differs from the more extensive effort with the
EMI set. There is no libretto for the opera although the words are given
for the Dowson-based Songs of Sunset added as a bonus now that
the disc for the final song has been tracked down.
Previously Songs of Sunset was issued on SOMM-BEECHAM 8
minus the last song. Its inclusion certainly makes this set an even
more attractive proposition. Given that in the company of the opera
it is a subsidiary work people are likely to want to buy this for the
opera and are unlikely to begrudge the duplication of the Songs.
I am sure that most Delian folk would have bought this set even if it
had had no coupling. The singing throughout is wonderfully coaxing and
rounded with the demonstration track being the See How The Trees.
Roy Henderson, a noted Delian, is in clear and rugged voice finding
personality and moment in this music. This work has the tendency to
mournfulness not uncommon in Delius but heard to perfection in the dialogue
of sighs from 03.02 - 03.34 tk.9 CD2. Delius transcends the maudlin
and achieves a mystical glowing acceptance of mortality - a nirvana
distant from the Christian heaven.
The booklet explains that the opera recording was broadcast
on the BBC Third Programme on 23 and 25 April 1948. This was the
first of two studio performances recorded on acetates by these forces
at Maida Vale. I wonder if a recording of the second studio performance
has survived? Stephen Lloyd who has made authoritative contributions
to the Delius literature gave guidance and assistance to permit the
release of this recording.
Rather as with other Third Programme BBC opera
broadcasts of that era there is a narrator who sometimes speaks over
the top of the music as at the end of tr. 1 CD2.
A self-recommending historic recording in which the
passion of a radio studio performance compares very well with Beecham's
commercial effort for EMI. Tolerant ears needed.