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Frederick DELIUS (1874-1934).
The Beecham Collection
Brigg Fair. Symphony Orchestra, recorded December 11 1928 & July 10 1929;
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and The Walk to the Paradise Garden (from A Village Romeo and Juliet). Orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society, rec. December 19-20 1927;
Sea Drift*. Dennis Noble, Manchester Beecham Opera Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, rec. November 11 1928;
North Country Sketches: 'Autumn'* and 'Winter Landscape'*;
Song before Sunrise*; A Dance Rhapsody (No 2)*. London Philharmonic Orchestra, rec. October 16 1945. (* previously unissued)
SOMM-BEECHAM 10 [74.45]
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This latest instalment in the SOMM Beecham series includes some of Sir Thomas's earliest Delius recordings and several test pressings that are being issued here for the first time. Beecham only started to record the works of Delius in the last six years of the composer's life.

The first two records to be issued were of The Walk to the Paradise Garden and On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring with an orchestra that was assembled for the Royal Philharmonic Society's concerts and went under that name (not, of course, to be confused with the similarly named orchestra that Beecham formed in 1946). These recordings were made in the Fyvie Hall in the Regent Street Polytechnic, London on 19-20 December 1927.

The First Cuckoo had been a regular encore during Beecham's winter tour with the London Symphony Orchestra in November and December 1926, and he had recently programmed both works with that orchestra. (Beecham had not conducted a Royal Philharmonic Society concert since 1918 but he was due to do so in March 1928 when he would receive the Society's Gold Medal, and he was to employ its orchestra for the penultimate concert of his 1929 Delius Festival.)

Almost six months later, on 11 July with the LSO in the Central Hall, Westminster, he attempted to record Brigg Fair, presumably complete as four sides were taken, but this was not published for whatever reason. But the next day, in the same hall with the Royal Philharmonic Society Orchestra, Summer Night on the River was successfully captured on disc. It is in some ways a pity that this was not included on the CD under review, not only because it is the companion piece to The First Cuckoo but because it would give some continuity to these early recordings. (The first of four recordings Beecham made of this work, it has been issued on Dutton CDLX 7011 and more recently on Naxos 8.110904.)

Next to be attempted was Sea Drift, on November 11 1928. This is the earliest of four studio recordings, although not one which he ultimately approved for release. The 120-strong Manchester Beecham Operatic Choir was making its first visit to London for a Royal Albert Hall Armistice Day concert with the London Symphony Orchestra at 3 p.m. that included Sea Drift (an appropriate choice for the occasion) and Elgar's For the Fallen, the LSO leader W. H. Reed taking over the conducting in many operatic solos because Beecham had an injured hand. Although this was a Sunday, Sea Drift was recorded that same day (presumably in the morning) in the Portman Rooms, London, the LSO for contractual reasons being named the 'Symphony Orchestra'. At that same venue, a month later and also on July 10 the following year, Brigg Fair was successfully taken down with the 'Symphony Orchestra'. Apart from some songs in which he accompanied Dora Labbette, the only other Delius recording that Beecham made during the composer's life-time was Paris, for the first of the three Delius Society volumes, though Delius was never to hear the test pressings because, as Eric Fenby tells us, they were held up by the French customs.

Brigg Fair comes first on this CD and makes a most suitable opener. Beecham made three commercial recordings of this much-loved work and this, the earliest version, has sounded its age in some transfers. Not here. Compare the opening with either its LP re-issue in the World Records boxed set SHB32 (one of the better transfers), its first CD appearance in The Beecham Collection on BEECHAM 3, or in the new Naxos 'Delius Orchestral Works Vol. 3' (8.110906), and one can hear that the SOMM engineer, Gary Moore, has achieved wonders in opening out the sound, giving space around the notes as it were to add a further dimension. The harp is crystal clear; the surface noise is minimal but nothing has been lost. The occasional scuffs and familiar 78 thuds betray wear in the pressings used but the sound has a brightness and a clarity that rivet the ear and give a real presence to the performance. The Naxos version is anyway hors de combat because, as a comparison of its opening bars with any other recording shows only too clearly, the pitch is higher than it should be and consequently its playing time a minute shorter. Delians have Beecham's 1928/9, 1946 and 1956/7 (stereo) versions (Dutton CDLX7028 and EMI CDM5 67552-2) to choose between. This first version moves forward with much more purpose, especially in the exposition of the theme itself, and in the beautiful pastoral section that Beecham draws it out more in the 1946 version, emphasising the three-against-four in the crotchet triplets, and adding a minute-and-a-half to the work's overall timing. His last version, that benefits from stereo sound, is almost as relaxed, making up in beauty for what it lacks in drive. But for the extra excitement it offers, no-one should be without the earliest version issued here which has a real sense of discovery about it. (Michael Gray's Beecham: A Centenary Discography indicates that as many as 11 'takes' were made of the first side over three days. Early American pressings used the fifth 'take' while later ones used the tenth which would seem to be the one used in all the CD transfers.)

Like Brigg Fair, Beecham made three recordings of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1927, 1946/8 and 1956, Dutton and EMI as above). There is little to choose between the two '78' versions. The middle version is slightly more refined while the earlier one if anything seems fresher with an ounce more character in the phrasing and playing. In Delius as I knew him Eric Fenby describes listening to this 1927 recording at Grez-sur-Loing in the presence of the composer: 'Sitting there opposite him in the quiet of that great room, with no fidgeting neighbours or disturbing faces to distract, one touched the very heart of Music in those exquisite opening bars. Never had the sound of the strings nor Goossens' oboe-playing seemed so magical !' he writes.

It is curious that Beecham made one recording only of The Walk to the Paradise Garden (apart from the complete A Village Romeo and Juliet set recorded in 1948) but, despite its age, it sounds well. It is beautifully paced, and played with both tenderness and passion. It is worth remembering that, besides countless performances of The Walk, Beecham staged the opera in 1910 and 1920 at Covent Garden, in 1934 at the Royal College of Music, and he conducted broadcasts at the BBC in 1932 and 1948.

The first of the rarities on this CD is the performance of Sea Drift with Dennis Noble as soloist. (Over a month earlier he had sung it with Beecham at the 1928 Leeds Festival, the performance to which Eric Fenby had failed to gain admittance: 'My dear boy, if I only had known I would have put you on the platform!' was Beecham's comment.) This had a private release on an American Beecham Society LP, WHS-107, but here it has been splendidly cleaned up, the sound brightened, and alternative 'takes' used to produce the most satisfactory whole. Dennis Noble proves a fine interpreter. His diction is superb and every word is audible. (Three years later he was to introduce Belshazzar's Feast at Leeds.) It is not known why Beecham did not approve this recording for release but it was quite likely a matter of balance: the opening favours the strings too much so that the individual woodwind lines are not clear, but it is a fine performance, making a worthy addition to the Beecham's three other versions (John Brownlee 1936, Gordon Clinton 1951 and Bruce Boyce in 1954). One wonders whether Delius had test pressings of Noble's version to play at Grez.

In 1946 Beecham staged the second of his great Delius Festivals, this time with his newly-formed Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. (Snatches from that Festival have survived on private acetates deposited in the National Sound Archive.) He took the opportunity to record in the studio a good number of works from the Festival (among them The Song of the High Hills, Violin Concerto, Paa Vidderne, Songs of Sunset), some before, some after the pubic performance. Two movements from North Country Sketches were recorded in October 1945 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (with The March of Spring left incomplete). At the same session he attempted the rather enigmatic Dance Rhapsody No 2, returning to it a year later with the RPO. In the end nothing from these sessions was approved for release, but in 1979 the second attempt at Dance Rhapsody No 2 was issued in the World Records set SHB54 (and re-issued in 1998 on Dutton CDLX 7028). Now here for the first time we have that earlier LPO version of Dance Rhapsody No 2, together with the two movements from North Country Sketches and, recorded at the same time, A Song before Sunrise (which, after a further attempt with the RPO in December 1946, he finally captured to his satisfaction in April 1949 - issued on Dutton).

These unpublished 'takes' provide a fascinating glimpse into Beecham's work in the studio, how he moulded his interpretations, and the exacting standards he set himself (as if the 11 attempts at Brigg Fair were not evidence enough). He returned to North Country Sketches in February 1949 (the 78 set eventually being released on LP and later on CD - SONY SMK58934). The two readings of Winter start at a similar tempo, but this becomes more varied in the later version, bringing rather more atmosphere. Much the same happens with the two versions of A Song before Sunrise: they set off at a similar pace but in the later recording Beecham finds more time to explore the middle section before the reprise of the opening. At around five minutes' length (4' 51" and 5' 38" respectively) it was not a work that would fit easily onto a single 78 side, although Barbirolli had just managed it with his 1929 recording (re-issued on Dutton CDSJB1005). Dance Rhapsody No 2, a work that Beecham performed very infrequently, here sounds hurried, especially when compared against the more measured pace of his second attempt, but it is most interesting to be able to make the comparison of these two readings taken down a year apart, with neither of which he was ultimately sufficiently satisfied to release.

The last four tracks on this CD are in essence 'collectors' items' and probably of less interest to the general Delian (although one is nevertheless grateful for having them). But the two recordings that make this issue specially important are the freshly-minted Brigg Fair from 1929 and Dennis Noble's strong delivery of Sea Drift. With the 1934 Leeds Festival Arabesque and Songs of Sunset in the previous release in this series, SOMM is coming up with real treasures. What next?

Stephen Lloyd

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