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Frederick DELIUS
A Mass of Life (Prelude to Part II, No.3)
An Arabesk *
Songs of Sunset †
Songs +

Roy Henderson (baritone)*†; Olga Haley (soprano) †
Dora Labette (soprano) +
London Select Choir; BBC Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham
Recordings date from 1929, 1934 and 1938
SOMM-BEECHAM 8 Mono/ADD [73:40]

The Songs:
Dora Labette with the London Philharmonic Orchestra:
The Violet
Klein Venevil

Dora Labette with Sir Thomas Beecham (piano):
Le Ciel est par-dessus le toit
The Violet
Irmelin Rose
Twilight Fancies
Cradle Song
The Nightingale

One is bound to ask why the recording of Songs of Sunset, on this enterprising Somm album has never been released before? After all this is an important document a recording made by one of Delius's most fervent admirers, the first conductor to embrace his works and to record so many of them. Furthermore, this performance (apart from the final song, see below) dates back to 4th October 1934, the year Delius died (Elgar and Holst died in the same year). Added to this is the fine expressive singing of Roy Henderson and Olga Haley. I can only imagine that the congested and distorted sound of the choir in the opening chorus 'A Song of the Setting Sun' with what sounds like some suspect vocal intonation (Delius's choral music is notoriously difficult and a real challenge for choirs) might have been a contributing factor. But I may be doing the performers and engineers an injustice for a footnote in this album's booklet claims: "In this series where the source material was unissued great care has been taken to ensure that Sir Thomas's comments on the original test pressings have been observed in the remastering. In other cases it has been possible to use 78 rpm recordings from Sir Thomas's collection(?)"

No matter, this is a moving reading of a most beautifully moving work, with Delius once again preoccupied with the transience of life and love. The settings are of words by Ernest Dowson. I hasten to add that there are just a few moments of discomfort in that opening chorus for the singers vividly convey 'a [winter] sky that's chill and grey'. Later, too, they are poignant as they sing of 'Pale amber sunlight across The reddening October trees', their voices suggesting mournful breezes swirling falling leaves. Sensuality and ecstasy is eagerly conveyed in the early duet 'Cease smiling, Dear' yet it is tempered by the sadness of the realisation that parting is imminent. Olga Haley is likewise almost unbearably poignant as she sings, 'Exceeding sorrow consumeth my sad heart! Because tomorrow we must part.' Henderson, too, touches the heart as he watches the rain pour down his window pain (lovely subtle tone painting here in the orchestra) and confesses that 'All day mine hunger for her heart became Oblivion, until the evening came, And left me sorrowful inclined to weep With all my memories that would not sleep.' One of the most memorable parts of this reading is the lovely song for chorus beginning 'See how the trees and the osiers lithe Are green bedecked and the woods are blithe' in which the chorus joyfully greets Spring but the heart almost stops as the soloists enter one after the other to briefly interject with their contrasting feelings of despair (the baritone sorrowful, 'But the spring of the Soul, the spring of the Soul, Cometh not for you or me'. Very moving, too, is the closing ensemble to those well-known words of Dyson, 'They are not long, the weeping and the laughter…they are not long, the days of wine and roses…' Alas the test pressings of this closing number could not be found so it had to be replaced from a later 1946 Beecham recording of the work that featured Nancy Evans and Redvers Llewellyn. Maybe hereby lies the real reason why the 1934 recording was never released?

Delius's An Arabesk again raises this problem of a congested chorus sound but once again it is Roy Henderson's imaginative colouring of his voice in expressions of gloomy forests, blood-red poppies, the 'poisonous lilies dazzling chalice' and bleak winter winds; plus Beecham's Leeds Festival orchestra's highly evocative sound pictures, that persuade.

Probably the most valued part of this CD is the collection of Delius Songs recorded by Dora Labette. This is their premier CD release. There are two collections: four songs recorded at Abbey Road in 1938 and a further six recorded earlier in two separate sessions in June and July 1929 at Petty France.

Delius wrote some 60 songs of which 12 were committed to disc by Beecham, some more than once (we have two versions of The Violet here) although he performed many more in public. Beecham was to work with the English soprano Dora Labette (1898-1984) in many opera and concert performances. She had a most pleasing lyric soprano voice: bright and secure in its high registers, and warming in mid-range. The collection of four songs with orchestra commences with Whither from Danish texts by Ludwig Holsten: a young girl sadly asks of her father, where do the swans go 'with glittering wings and outstretched necks, Singing hastening away, away, away, away' (nicely painted in the orchestra). The Violet is another Holsten-inspired song: lovingly coy but sad too as the singer longs 'to breathe the self-same air, to share its fragrance and delight With you sweet flower.' It is interesting to compare the later version with orchestra with the more austere but perhaps more poignant earlier piano-accompanied version. I-Brasil has a definite Scottish flavouring for the words are of Fiona Macleod, and again this is sadly evocative - 'There's sorrow in the world O wind, there's sorrow in my heart…'

The fourth and last orchestral-accompanied song, Klein Venevil (Sweet Venevil) is sung in Norwegian to a text by Bjornstjene Bjornson. It appears to be something of a ghost story combining a measure of joy and a lilting refrain with a characteristic seam of Delian mournfulness.

Beecham, himself, offers sympathetic piano accompaniments to the earlier song recital.

Le Ciel (The Sky) has the soft peal of bells and birdsong, but there is also that sadness as the peace and serenity of the sky is compared to street-level grief. Irmelin Rose, from the Danish by Jens Peter Jacobsen, recounts the icy demeanour of beautiful but spoilt Princess Irmelin who cruelly spurns all who court her. In similar mood is the allegorical and moody Princess of Twilight Fancies, (Bjornson) who, aloof from everything and everybody, eventually accepts how empty her life is (to a desolate, downward line in voice and piano), "What is it I long for, God help me", she cried And the sun went down, and the sun went down.' Cradle Song is loving and sentimental. The Nightingale, from the Norwegian of Johan Welhaven, sings outside a prison to mock the sorrow of one inside.

The remaining item on the album is a short 4½-minute excerpt from A Mass of Life -

The Prelude to Part 2, No. 3 recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in February 1938.

Apart from the odd spot of blemished choral singing (the recording?) this is an invaluable historic document, with loving performances that feel that much more authentic since they date from a little before, and after the death of Delius.

Ian Lace

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