Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Delius

Over the Hills and Far Away
Sea Drift
Paris - Song of a Great City

Bruce Boyce (bar)
BBC Chorus/Leslie Woodgate
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra /Sir Thomas Beecham
rec 7 Feb 1950 (Over the Hills); Aug 1955 (Paris); 23 April, 2-3 Dec 1954 (Sea Drift).
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Here is a CD re-release of some classic Beecham Delius recordings, re-mastered and, as seems the custom these days, mixed-and-matched to produce a different collection. Beecham clearly had a fondness for the first work on this CD, the youthful Fantasy Overture Over the Hills and Far Away. He recorded it three times: in 1936 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for inclusion in the second of the Delius Society volumes; in 1950 (this present recording) with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; and in April 1957, in stereo, also with the RPO. All three recordings were made in EMI's Abbey Road Studios (although Michael Gray's indispensable Beecham Discography informs us that with the third recording there was a parallel session taken in mono only in Paris). Beecham put this work in the first concert he gave with his newly-formed Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in Croydon on September 15 1946, and that October he opened his second Delius Festival with it. (Premièred in Germany, it had the distinction of being the first orchestral work by Delius to be heard in England in the all-Delius concert of May 1899 in St. James's Hall, London. It says much for England's musical enterprise that it was not until October 1907 that another note of Delius was heard.)

This is marginally the most spacious of the three readings, and it provides evidence of the Beecham's careful editing of the score. The opening section consists of a rising theme, Andante molto tranquillo, on muted strings, followed by repeated horn calls. Unlike the other two recordings, at the end of the introduction the penultimate horn call, solo, is here played fortissimo (or at least forte), and its echo is not muted. In his final recording Beecham reverted to first thoughts. The stereo version, good though it is, is momentarily marred by a wrong note on woodwind and lacks just a little of the atmosphere and drama of the earlier two versions. It is good to have this one back in the catalogue. The first version was released on BEECHAM 2.

For its first SONY CD release (SMK 58934) Over the Hills was coupled with North Country Sketches, Eventyr and the closing scene from Koanga. Here it shares company with two well-known and much-loved recordings that first appeared on a Philips LP (ABL 3088) with its evocative blue-green sea-shore cover: Sea Drift and Paris. (These works were separated when first issued on CD, MPK 47680 and SMK 46683.)

Beecham made four recordings of Sea Drift, all of which have been available on CD, but he only approved two for commercial release*. The first, recorded in 1936 for the second of the three Delius Society 78 volumes, had John Brownlee as the soloist. This 1954 version has Bruce Boyce who two years earlier took the role of Zarathustra in Beecham's A Mass of Life recording. Much may depend on one's personal preference for the soloist, although both singers identify closely with the anguish, indeed the universal suffering, of the solo part. Beecham's overall interpretation seems to have changed very little during the eighteen-year interval but, as one would expect, the Philips (Sony) version, even though still in mono, wins over the earlier one by virtue of its superior recording. The harps, so clear at 'Yes, when the stars glisten'd all night long' (and a little later at 'Avoiding the moonbeams'), are hardly audible in the earlier version, and some other details, like the forte muted horns at 'you husky voic'd sea', only emerge in the later recording. The soloist's voice is captured better, although the BBC Chorus is very sibilant. A side-by-side comparison of the original LP and the two SONY CD releases shows that the sound has been brightened in places, bringing out the chorus and soloist a little more, but at the expense of the occasional loss of body to the soloist's voice and also a touch of shrillness and even slight distortion at the choral outburst 'Shine ! Shine ! Shine !' The bass is a little over-reverberant in places as well. However, even in the face of stiff competition from Hickox in excellent sound on Chandos with a very expressive Bryn Terfel (CHAN 9214), this would be a first recommendation. For all the many virtues of Hickox's reading, his opening is too languorous and lacks a tidal undercurrent of tension.

[Beecham's other two recordings of Sea Drift are with Dennis Noble in 1928 (in the new SOMM-BEECHAM 10 release) and with Gordon Clinton in 1951 (EMI CMS 7 64386 2, coupled with A Village Romeo and Juliet).]

Paris too is an out-and-out winner. It is a reading that has grown from a lifetime's experience. Paris was the first Delius score that Beecham conducted. He made two recordings, the earlier one with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1934 for the first of the Delius Society volumes. Again, the earlier version is not totally outclassed by the later recording. There is an extra ounce of yearning in that wonderful viola theme, adagio con espressione at figure 13, in the old 78 set (first CD release on BEECHAM 2 and now available on Naxos 8.110904). Eric Fenby used to say that Beecham's Delius was interpretatively at its peak in the earlier days, from which one must infer the LPO period. The only fault in the first Paris is the unaccountable fade-out at the end of the first side that makes any satisfactory join impossible.

But the later performance has tremendous panache and breadth. There are places where the unseasoned conductor can easily allow a performance to sag: the molto adagio at figure 18 is one such place. Beecham negotiates unerringly every change of tempo, every change of mood. Listen out for his shouts of encouragement at around 17' 25" where he whips up excitement. Again this has to be a first recommendation. For any Delius enthusiast not possessing either of the earlier CD releases of Paris and Sea Drift, this is a must.

Stephen Lloyd

See also review by Rob Barnett

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