Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Frederick DELIUS
A Mass of Life
Rosina Raisbeck (sop)
Monica Sinclair (con)
Charles Craig (ten)
Bruce Boyce (bar)
London Philharmonic Choir/Frederick Jackson
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec Nov 1952-May 1953 EMI Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London
SONY CLASSICAL SM2KK89432 [2CDs 41.18; 69.12] Midprice
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When Sony do commit themselves they do it with panache. Going by the monthly release lists you might be forgiven for imagining that Sony were moribund. There seem to be fewer and fewer classical releases and they do not command big advertising spreads in IRR or Gramophone.

In this latest Beecham series of three discs SONY have done everything to the highest standard. The three are in uniform apparel with a photograph of a seated Beecham (in his seventies) musing, baton in hand, on the cover of each. The three are distinguished by mauve, green and blue sepia tones - a different tint for each cover. They are presented for what they are: highly desirable items in their own right.

While the Miscellaneous Delius recital (Over the Hills, Sea Drift and Paris) have been issued before on CD the Beecham Elgar and the present set are new to the medium. I know the Beecham Mass from the 1970s CBS LP reissue in a double gatefold. How many people still have that I wonder.

Sony have responded to the 1930s Delius-Beechams from Naxos and the smattering of Delius reissues from SOMM. These and kin recordings are (with the exception of an even later HMV collection from circa 1960) the best sounding Beechams. They were committed to tape between March 1949 and October 1956. The sessions included the North Country Sketches (amongst the best of Delius, I always thought), Paris, a largish suite from Hassan, An Arabesque etc.

Beecham's book of spells was unfaded with age and he casts his enchantment in warm balm, sunlit torment and towering affirmation. Much of this performance brings out the slow dreamy ecstasy of the mountains as in Song of the High Hills. The sound is worth more than a passing mention. It has a beguiling haziness well suited to the choral writing. This is the haze of far distances and shimmering cordilleras. Impact is there and though our expectations must be tempered the rasp and bark of the brass in the opening animato is impressive. Fiery character is never in short supply. The solo voices (to a man and woman secure and clear) are subjected to a pleasing closer focus. The sound of the chorus is, by contrast, distanced so that it does not have the thudding frontal impact of the 1972 EMI Groves recording (reissued 1992 CMS 7 64218 2). The Norman Del Mar on Intaglio (INCD702-2 from BBC relay 3 May 1971) is the least transparent of the recordings and possibly the most natural. It also enjoys the presence of a young Kiri Te Kanawa and a typically admirable John Shirley-Quirk. The Beecham is tastefully balanced with a fully acceptable dose of zeroing in on instruments for effect. It is truly glorious and while previous hearings of the LPs and other versions of the Mass left me rather bored with much of the work I rarely felt the grip slacken in hearing this version. I have not heard the Chandos Hickox version but I know that it is highly regarded. I have however heard a tape of a Sargent broadcast from the 1960s which had great strengths in the weight of the choral contribution and much the same can be said of the Groves. Of course the Beecham is in mono. I applaud Sony for their candour in declaring this on the disc if not on the cover. I would rate the Beecham very high with the Del Mar not far behind and the Groves not far behind that. As I say, I have not heard the Hickox but it will take quite something to match the supple enchantment of the Beecham. The Groves coupled Songs of Sunset and An Arabesque while the Intaglio, which you might well be able to pick up perhaps second-hand, had Groves conducting that great rarity, the Delius Requiem.

Everything about this disc (at mid price) shows caring attention from full discographical detailing to notes and full texts and translations. This disc stands above the herd and whets my appetite for the Elgar and the Sea Drift collection which shares with the Mass of Life the wonder-filled tones of Bruce Boyce. The Sony engineers have steered well between the Scylla of background silence and damaged sound and the Charybdis of hiss. There is hiss there if you dig deep but my impression is that the naturalness of those sessions of almost five decades ago has been faultlessly resurrected.

The disc is completed by a rather unspecific talk by Beecham delivered in his waggishly drawling sing-song.

Rob Barnett

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