> DELIUS North Country Sketches etc. Beecham [SL]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Frederick DELIUS
Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Delius

North Country Sketches, (recorded February 14th 1949);
In a Summer Garden, (recorded October 27th 1951);
Appalachia, (recorded October 29th, November 6th, 7th and 13th and December 18th 1952)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. cond Sir Thomas Beecham
SONY SMK89429 [67.34]

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Another valuable addition to the SONY Beecham Delius series. While two of the works on this disc are making their first CD appearance, none of them was later recorded by Beecham in stereo, so they are, in a sense, his final readings.

The oldest recording is that of North Country Sketches which, unlike the others, was first released on 78s although recorded on tape. It is the only work on this disc that Beecham premièred. Delius himself conducted the first performance of In a Summer Garden in a version markedly different from the one familiar today, while it was the first English performance of Appalachia conducted by Fritz Cassirer that stirred a young Thomas Beecham, sitting in the Queen’s Hall audience, to champion the works of Delius. (The writer of the notes is not quite right in saying that ‘Appalachia was the work for which Delius was looking for an interpreter to present his music to London audiences when he called on Beecham in his room at the Queen’s Hall after a concert in October 1907’: it was an orchestra that Delius was seeking on behalf of Cassirer who was to make his conducting début in England.)

North Country Sketches – almost a terrestrial counterpart to Debussy’s La Mer - is a wonderfully evocative mood picture of the seasons, ending, in keeping with Delius’s philosophy of the recurrence of Nature, with ‘The March of Spring’. For once, the work’s inspiration may well have been England rather than Delius’s favourite northern land, Norway. Here there are no horn passages so suggestive of mountain heights (as, for example, in Over the Hills and Far Away); instead mists and winds of wild moorland. In ‘Frederick Delius: Memories of my Brother’ (Ivor Nicholson & Watson 1935), Clare Delius wrote of her brother’s interest in the Brontës, and how, when they had met in London after the Deliuses’ flight from Grez in November 1914, their conversation had turned to Yorkshire, the county of their birth, and in particular to Wuthering Heights. She wrote that Delius was ‘thinking of subjecting Wuthering Heights to musical treatment, and he explained with ever-growing enthusiasm how he intended to create a series of harmonic pictures which would worthily reproduce in another medium the emotional quality of the original’ (p.197). It might be too fanciful to suggest any direct link between Emily Brontë’s novel and the North Country Sketches, especially when the latter was more or less completed by that time – they were first performed in May 1915 – but Yorkshire could well have been the creative source of these Nature poems.

In a much swifter reading, also with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, broadcast from Maida Vale on November 4th 1959 (issued on Music & Arts CD-281), Beecham interchanged the middle movements, a practice that Stanford Robinson also adopted. The same order was followed at Frankfurt on March 1st 1923 at an all-Delius concert given to celebrate what was mistakenly believed to have been Delius’s 60th birthday. Paul von Klenau conducted, but Delius attended rehearsals and so presumably sanctioned the order of movements. The programme books for Beecham’s 1929 and 1948 Delius Festivals, however, give the order in which they are usually heard, as on this CD (which is the manuscript and the published order).

The 1959 broadcast performance is noticeably faster, in places almost hurried, as the timings of the four movements show only too clearly: 7'17"/5'46"; 4'06"/3'35"; 5'43"/5'24"; 7'34"/7'10". This SONY version is more moody, more atmospheric, and more powerful, enjoying a richer-bodied recording that is sounding remarkably good for its age. One important detail concerning this new transfer is that the first note of last movement, a woodwind semi-quaver, curiously absent or clipped in all the earlier re-issues on LP and CD (SMK58934), has been restored.

The return to the catalogue of the other two works is especially welcome. This In a Summer Garden was last available on CBS’s oddly assembled ‘Delius’ Greatest Hits’ LP (30056) where it was in ‘electronically reprocessed stereo’ (with Beecham in the unlikely company of Eugene Ormandy and George Szell). The mono sound is too good to require any faking or trickery. While there is no sense of hurry here, Beecham does not linger as some other interpreters tend to but shows the necessity of keeping the music moving. There is a splendid freshness and clarity in the recording and the performance.

If North Country Sketches revisits Delius’s Yorkshire, and In a Summer Garden evokes his garden at Grez leading down to the River Loing that flows through the central part of that score, then Appalachia reminds us of the importance of Delius’s stay in America where ostensibly he was managing a Florida citrus plantation. Once again it is a vivid scenic picture, not only catching the plight of the Negro slaves being sent down the Mississippi (‘O Honey, I am going down the river in the morning’) but also depicting the peculiarly luxuriant Florida vegetation and climate. It was not until Eric Fenby (who was Delius’s amanuensis in his last years) visited Florida himself in 1966 that he fully appreciated and understood the score:

. . . As we neared the Atlantic coast and descended gradually to lower altitudes it was clearly possible to follow the route from the excellent maps provided for all passengers, and I saw the vastness of the forests and swamps as we approached Jacksonville. Above all I was fascinated by the colour of the trees, a dull milk-chocolate brown through the grey of Spanish moss in which they are enveloped. I scarcely remember the landing: I was so bemused by that blend and its singular effect on my mind. Even through the bleak wind as we made our way from the plane and through all the welcoming handshakes I could think of nothing but that colour. Then, in a flash, as we drove to our hotel I understood for the first time why there are sounds in Appalachia quite unlike any other of Delius's works. I was to be made aware of this during our visit. . .

. . . We piled into our hostess's car and bounced from rut to rut up the muddy track which led to a dense wood of high trees till we came to a clearing in which Negroes were working. Here we walked through a narrow strip of land matted with luxurious undergrowth past orange trees bearing fruit, and then I saw the giant magnolia tree Delius had described near the place where his house had stood overlooking the St Johns River. It is this piece of land within the old orange grove, fenced off from the rest, that Mrs Richmond has bestowed in perpetuity to the University.

The landscape over the river seems boundless and there was that same brooding peace in the grove that Delius had so often recalled. Despite my friends I could have wished myself alone, for so much that has mattered most in my life began here. Nor could I rid myself of the ethereal passage for high strings which comes in Appalachia before the return of the six-eight cello variation in D minor. Whatever Delius may have meant by it in the context of the work, to the end of my days it will conjure up the mysterious peace of Solano Grove, the spiritual birthplace of his most personal art.

Appalachia was most effectively adapted for use in the 1946 film The Yearling, set in Florida with a score by Herbert Stothart ‘utilising themes by Frederick Delius’, as the credits run.

Beecham’s 1952 reading of Appalachia (like In a Summer Garden, previously only available on LP) is very similar in pacing to his 1938 recording (Dutton CDLX 7011 and Naxos 8.110906) though here, of course, benefiting from superior sound. It is a reading of great sensitivity and vitality. Why this work is not more popular is something of a mystery.

For those wanting these three works in more up-to-date stereo there have been very good versions from Sir Charles Mackerras (North Country Sketches and In a Summer Garden on Argo 430 202-2, re-issued on a Decca Double 460290; Appalachia on Decca 443 171-2 not currently available). Yet, as always, Beecham brings his own magic and a special quality to these works that make these performances unquestionably ‘right’. At about £8.45 the price is right too ! Don’t hesitate.

Stephen Lloyd

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