Decca's continuing series 'The British Music Collection'
is bringing back a whole host of interesting recordings and repertoire
to the catalogue. This double CD set of Delius features some of the
most notable conductors of the post-Beecham era, in Mackerras, Hickox
and Marriner, while also including a series of performances by Sir Thomas's
distinguished contemporary Anthony Collins.
Collins created an enviable reputation as a conductor
of Delius and Sibelius, and from these performances it is easy to understand
why. For the music has a natural phrasing and shaping, and a longer-term
vision too. Paris, for example, is notoriously difficult to bring off,
but Collins has the measure of the music. His ability to conjure magical
colours from quasi-impressionist textures is also notable during the
mostly quiet music of In a Summer Garden, a nature-piece with a surprisingly
long time span of some fifteen minutes.
If all this is the good news, now for the not-so-good.
These recordings all date from 1953, and while they are adequate they
do reflect their vintage. Part of Delius's language in orchestral music
is about colour and lustre of sound, so the intrepid collector should
beware. The sound is anaemic, with little or no richness and bloom during
There are no such problems among the remainder of the
collection, although it needs to be said that the Collins performances
do make a substantial portion of the whole, practically half of it,
in fact. There is also a quite splendid Sea Drift from Richard Hickox,
with John Shirley-Quirk his excellent baritone soloist. But it is disappointing
that there is no text in the booklet, particularly since so much of
it is given over to dead space. This betrays a slack editorial hand.
Julian Lloyd Webber is an expert Delian, and his performance
of the Cello Sonata gains also from his choice of pianist. Experienced
as a lieder accompanist, Bengt Forsberg plays with the utmost sensitivity.
On a larger scale is A Song of the High Hills, a major work dating from
1911, which is less well known than it deserves to be. As well as being
musically imaginative, this score is also biographically important,
in that it relates to Delius's lifelong obsession with the Norwegian
landscape. The imagery of the mountain peaks can be both vigorous and
poetically refined, and Mackerras captures these extremes with great
vigour on the one hand, great sensitivity on the other. He is aided
by the Welsh National Opera and Chorus, whose music director he was
when this recording was made, Rebecca Evans and Peter Hoare are on excellent
vocal form. The recording copes well with the wide dynamic range this
music demands, save that climaxes sometimes sound a shade congested,
the timpani lacking definition, for example.
The remainder of the collection is given over to orchestral
miniatures conducted by Sir Neville Marriner with his Academy of St
Martin in the Fields. These performances from 1977 are particularly
well played and recorded, reflecting the particular achievements of
their collaboration. The rhythms bounce perfectly in La Calinda, surely
one of the composer's most appealing smaller works, and A Song before
Sunrise has a radiant beauty.
This is a strange collection, since it contains some
fine performances, but there remains an uneasy mixture of historical
and modern recordings. Another disappointment (or rather frustration)
is that Appalachia is not included. This is particularly so since the
Decca archive contains two magnificent performances, conducted by Hickox
and Mackerras, which were previously issued in couplings with items
which are included here.