Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

Frederick DELIUS

A Mass of Life - Prelude (to Section 3 Part Two); An Arabesk; Songs of Sunset; 10 Songs.

Roy Henderson, Olga Haley, Dora Labbette, Nancy Evans, Redvers Llewellyn, London Select Choir, BBC Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham.
Crotchet  £9.49

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

This all-Delius CD from Somm, the first of three Beecham releases, is a continuation of The Beecham Collection series issued by Sir Thomas Beecham Enterprises Ltd. The two main items are the 'live' (i.e. not studio) recordings of An Arabesk and Songs of Sunset made in October 1934 at the time of that year's Leeds Festival, all the more poignant because Delius had died as recently as June. A degree of mystery has surrounded the whole batch of so-called Leeds Festival recordings, some of which were issued commercially. They may have been taken during actual public performances but it is only the absence of applause and that big give-away, the audience cough, that makes one wonder whether they were special recordings made in Leeds Town Hall perhaps before the Festival performance. Excerpts from Handel's Israel in Egypt (which was heard in the opening concert, that also included the première of Cyril Scott's La Belle Dame sans Merci conducted by Beecham), parts of Mozart's Mass in C minor, two sections of Sibelius's Tempest music, and Borodin's Polovstian Dances have each been once available either on 78, LP or CD. Although the sleeve note does nothing to unravel the mystery, these Delius items were in fact rehearsal 'takes' that have remained unissued until now. Various acetates of these rehearsals, some with Beecham's voice clearly audible both talking and (?)singing, have survived in different hands. As regards Songs of Sunset, each side would seem to have been a continuous take of one of the eight songs that make up the set, and from these it has been possible to assemble a 'performance'. However, it was long thought that the final side of Songs of Sunset had either not been recorded or been lost. This was obviously believed by the compilers of this CD who, in an attempt to make a satisfying whole, have added that final movement taken from Beecham's 1946 recording of the work (a set that was also neither completed nor approved and had its only release in 1979 in the second of the World Records Beecham-Delius boxed sets, SHB54). But the final 1934 side does in fact exist, making one wish that this CD could be reissued complete.

The outstanding soloists are Olga Haley and Roy Henderson (who sings in both works). When I visited Roy Henderson in his home in August 1986 (he died in March last year) I asked him about the recording, and his reply was most revealing: 'Yes, Beecham was naughty there. He said, "We've got the recording people here . . just a rehearsal." I didn't sing out. I wasn't going to sing out for the recording people unless we came to a financial agreement. . . . We weren't paid a thing for it. It was done at a rehearsal, without any sort of announcement.' When I invited him to talk to the Delius Society in April 1989, he elaborated. The evening performances (on two successive evenings) were to have been recorded by Columbia, but there was some sort of row afterwards which prevented that from taking place. (Whether it was because Henderson was a Decca artist or because the orchestra was not to receive any extra pay is not clear.) Fortunately there is no evidence of Henderson not singing out in these rehearsals. These are matchless performances of An Arabesk and Songs of Sunset, and if indeed they are rehearsals, one only wonders what the performances must have been like. The Yorkshire Observer critic wrote of 'music-making that will stay long in our memories.' The Yorkshire Evening Post wrote that 'the love duet, sung by Olga Haley and Roy Henderson with magnificent fervour, is fit to be compared with Tristan and Isolde for intensity of passion', while the Birmingham Post critic could not 'remember a more lovely performance than this, with Beecham at his most inspired and Olga Haley and Roy Henderson as the nearest imaginable thing to the ideal soloist.' These 'performances' on this CD live up to everything that those critics wrote. They are unquestionably among the greatest Delius recordings ever made.

Fine transfers of An Arabesk and Songs of Sunset were in fact prepared some years ago but never issued. By comparison these present transfers are somewhat fierce but no less valuable. Unfortunately, a great opportunity was surely missed by not including some of the rehearsal takes in which Beecham's commentary, brief though it may be, can be heard, even if in one or two cases Beecham's comments come at the end of a take that may have been used in the 'performance'. Here is an extremely rare chance of eaves-dropping on music-making by Delius's acknowledged supreme interpreter.

The other items on this CD are ten songs sung by Dora Labbette, either with orchestra or accompanied on the piano by Beecham (whom the critic Neville Cardus once good-humouredly described as 'one of the four worst pianists in the world', the others being Ernest Newman, Cardus himself and 'a very famous pianist'). Dora Labbette (whose Covent Garden début was famously made under the name of Lisa Perli) was a singer with whom Beecham had not only a professional relationship but also a very close personal one. Her beautiful voice is well matched to these songs. They were once available in the first of the World Records sets, SHB32 (1976), and they make a welcome re-appearance here.

The opening item on the CD is another test pressing that has only previously been available in the same boxed set, SHB32: the Prelude to the Third Section Part Two of A Mass of Life. Unfortunately here something has gone very wrong indeed at the beginning of this transfer where the sound is distorted. It fairly soon approaches the acceptable, but its LP issue had no such problems. (Incidentally the sleeve note is inaccurate in stating that Beecham recorded this prelude twice, in 1938 and 1948. The later recording was of the prelude that opens Part Two of the Mass.)

Ideally, one would withdraw this issue and release instead An Arabesk with Songs of Sunset complete, together with rehearsal takes from both works, and, for good measure issue, on CD for the first time the 1946 Songs of Sunset with Nancy Evans and Redvers Llewellyn (from which the final song has here been 'borrowed'), even though it lacks the second song. In the meantime this CD, sadly, can only be a stand-by, but what a treasure all the same.

Stephen Lloyd

See also review by Ian Lace

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: - The UK's Biggest Video Store Concert and Show tickets
Musicians accessories
Click here to visit