Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Delius
A Mass of Life (Eine Messe des Lebens)
Rosina Raisbeck (sop)
Monica Sinclair (con)
Charles Craig (ten)
Bruce Boyce (bar)
London Philharmonic Choir/Frederick Jackson
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
Recorded November 8th & 11th, December 8th, 10th, 12th & 13th 1952, January 1st & 20th, April 10th and May 14th 1953, EMI Studio 1, Abbey Road, London.
Introductory talk by Sir Thomas Beecham on Delius and A Mass of Life.
SONY CLASSICAL SM2KK89432 [2CDs 41.18; 69.12]
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Here at long last, for the first time on CD, is surely one of the monuments of the gramophone: Delius's Eine Messe des Lebens (A Mass of Life), in the hands of his acknowledged supreme interpreter, Sir Thomas Beecham. This recording, for far too long out of the catalogue, is actually making its fourth appearance. Its initial release, in November 1953, was on a lilac-coloured Columbia LP set, 33CX1079-80, with a booklet containing the text in German and English (in a translation by William Wallace) and incorporating notes by Eric Fenby. It then reappeared briefly on Fontana CFL1005-6, with a memorable sunset-drenched cover and with the text, in German only, and notes by Charles Burr now printed on the sleeves. For several years it remained unavailable until CBS re-issued it in 1970 at bargain price in the gate-fold LP set 61182-3. This time it was clothed in an unimaginative black front cover, with the same notes and a bilingual text, but now with John Bernhoff's English translation. The CD booklet contains the same notes and text, with an introduction by Julian Haylock. (In this otherwise informative essay two facts need to be refuted: The Walk to the Paradise Garden did not come about at Beecham's request - it existed before he had even heard a note of Delius - and Beecham was not involved in Fenby becoming Delius's amanuensis.)

This famous recording was made over a year after a Festival of Britain performance at the Royal Albert Hall on June 7th 1951. This concert was notable for several reasons. It was the last of the ten performances (all in England) that Sir Thomas was to give of A Mass of Life (to give its more familiar title) which he had premièred as far back as 1908. It marked the first appearance in England of a young baritone announced simply as 'Fischer-Dieskow' ('quite superb . . . of ringing nobility and a remarkable range of colour through all registers' wrote The Times critic). It was Beecham's only public performance of the work in German and, as was his habit, he changed the order of the movements, bringing forward the fourth movement of Part Two and placing it before the interval in an attempt to balance the two uneven halves of the work. (No need for such audience consideration here: on CD the movements are in the correct order, each 'half' of the work occupying a single disc.) And last but not least, it was broadcast by the BBC, and yet no recording of so important an occasion seems to exist, either in official archives or in private hands. The other soloists on that occasion were Sylvia Fisher, Monica Sinclair and David Lloyd.

When it came to the recording, which was spread over nearly seven months, different soloists were used, apart for Monica Sinclair. Sylvia Fisher sang in some of the early takes but, perhaps because of other engagements, her place was taken by Rosina Raisbeck, and despite the great impression he had made, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was not - to our loss - to recreate on disc (or it seems in the concert hall) the role of Zarathustra. His place was taken instead by Bruce Boyce who proves more than equal to the task. He was later to record Sea Drift with Beecham. When the CBS re-issue appeared in October 1970, Felix Aprahamian, one of the tiny handful of people alive today who actually met Delius, had this to say in The Gramophone: 'It is an open secret that a second recording of Delius's A Mass of Life has been projected for some years, and that it is likely to be a fait accompli within the next two years.' [This proved to be accurate: Sir Charles Groves's recording appeared in March 1972.] 'All the more reason to acquire the original Beecham recording while this chance is available. I have no doubt that, when at last, it comes the new version will be clearer and might even be better sung than this seventeen-year-old set. But', he concluded, 'I have even less doubt that those who then discover this mighty work will also want to have this earlier set, for it has more than a few magical and unsurpassable moments both in the orchestral playing, solo singing and general ensemble - and Beecham'.

These words still ring true today, even though there has since been yet another recording, from Chandos under Richard Hickox. Groves' and especially Hickox's recordings have strong points in their favour, even more so Del Mar's 'unofficial' BBC performance from Intaglio, but it is Beecham who ultimately provides the most satisfying and most moving reading. Geoffrey Crankshaw, in Records and Recordings, wrote in 1970 that 'the blazing conviction and immaculate musicianship of Beecham's interpretation is sheer genius'. If one had to isolate an example of this genius, one need only take the prelude to part two.

On the Mountains, as it is called, is breathtakingly beautiful. The SONY publicity for this CD actually lists 'Brain' with the soloists, and while oddly enough his name can be found nowhere in either the booklet or on the CD cover, playing offstage horn can surely be none other than Dennis Brain, the RPO's then principal horn, and this CD set is worth buying for that alone. Hickox treats this movement (4' 45") impressively as a study in pianissimo playing, but his horns, placed in the far distance, become lost in an aural mist. Groves brings greater clarity but he paces the movement faster (3' 56"). Only Del Mar (5' 17") comes close to Beecham, and his recording (BBC 1971, coupled with Groves' pioneer 1965 performance of the Requiem, INCD 702-2) is the finest Mass in stereo and should be snapped up whenever copies appear. Beecham (5' 20") takes longest of all but at no moment is one aware of either time or slowness as one can be with Hickox. Instead one is left in awe of the playing.

All the soloists sing with great authority and conviction, and as always with Beecham, there is a wonderful richness - not thickness - of texture in the orchestra owing to his skill at balancing in the recording studio as well as in the concert hall. In the 'Lyre Song', the most intimate of all the movements, the autumnal orchestral tapestry is subservient to the soloist, yet the ear constantly delights in the changing timbres, picking out details like the spread harp chord seven bars before the end and the muted strings at the close dying away from ppp to pppp. It is almost timeless: at moments bar lines might as well be non-existent. Utter wizardry.

Beecham's use of expressive hairpins is a subject in itself but there are, as one would expect, many touches in the performance that are not marked in the score (does a magician reveal all his secrets ?). Two examples in the fourth movement, part two: the ritardando in the fifth bar after 108 as Beecham relishes the falling chromatic phrase, and the telling diminuendo on the choir's last 'O Glück !' after 110, suggesting perhaps that bliss is after all not so easily attained.

The two-CD set begins with a previously unissued seven-minute talk by Sir Thomas on Delius and A Mass of Life. This is not the longer talk for the BBC that was broadcast the evening before the Royal Albert Hall performance, a generally unscripted talk which at one point Beecham illustrated himself on the piano and which was issued in the World Records Delius-Beecham boxed LP set SHB32. No indication is given as to the provenance of this talk or whether, as one may fairly assume, it was recorded by Columbia and intended either for issue on the LP release or for publicity purposes. The talk, in all truth, does not tell us a great deal about Delius, rather more about the speaker. It begins with a typical Beecham overstatement: 'During the past 70 years no composer has aroused so much discussion as Frederick Delius . . .' But it does allow us the pleasure of listening to Beecham's voice and his very personal - and masterly - style of oratory.

A Mass of Life was recorded over a wide range of dates and this would explain why the acoustic varies in places. For many years there was talk of the master tapes being lost or damaged. Whatever the truth of this, Gary Moore has achieved wonders in re-mastering this recording. Certainly one feared that the opening chorus might have lost its bite with age. Not at all. It still carries a terrific punch with weighty brass and Beecham setting a cracking pace that none of the other recordings can quite match. The chorus meets the challenge well, even if individual voices can be heard in places. One small quibble concerning this re-issue is that there could have been a little more breathing space between one or two movements: the 'Lyre Song', for example, follows too hard on the close of the 'Arise' chorus. But make no mistake: this is one of the greatest performances on record. No-one should hesitate to snap it up and at the same time urge SONY to dust down and release other Beecham treasures in their keeping.

Stephen Lloyd

See also review by Rob Barnett

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