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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
A Village Romeo and Juliet (1899-1901)

Wendy Eathorne (sop) Vrenchen - girl
Elizabeth Harwood (sop) Vrenchen
Corin Manley (treble) Sali - boy
Robert Tear (ten) Sali
Benjamin Luxon (bar) Manz
Noel Mangin (bass) Marti
John Shirley-Quirk (bar) The Dark Fiddler
First Peasant and Shooting Gallery Man: Stephen Varcoe (baritone)
First Woman and The Slim Girl: Felicity Palmer (soprano)
Second Peasant: Bryn Evans (baritone)
Second Woman: Mavis Beattie (soprano)
Gingerbread Woman: Doreen Price (soprano)
Wheel of Fortune Woman: Elaine Barry (soprano)
Cheap Jewellery Woman: Pauline Stevens (contralto)
Showman: Martyn Hill (tenor)
Merry-go-round Man: John Huw Davies (baritone)
The Wild Girl: Sarah Walker (contralto)
The Hunch-backed Bass Player: Franklyn Whiteley (bass)
The Poor Horn Player: Paul Taylor (tenor)
First Bargee: Robert Bateman (baritone)
Second Bargee: John Noble (baritone)
Third Bargee: Ian Partridge (tenor)
John Alldis Choir
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Meredith Davies
Talk by Eric Fenby [27.20]
Recorded in the Kingsway Hall, London 18th -22nd October 1971
Originally issued on LP in 1973
EMI CLASSICS 5 75785 2 [2CDs: 68.10+68.46]

 

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I must confess than I have never been a fan of the operas of Richard Wagner. O.K. there are a number of purple passages that one would have to have the sensibilities of a block of wood not to be moved by. But taken as a whole I find his operas too long, too teutonic and often quite frankly boring. For many years I have kept this to myself. I remember a long time ago going to hear Götterdämmerung at Scottish Opera. We watched the first act, went for an Indian in the second and came back for the immolation! I confess to being unmoved even by Tristan and Isolde, though have long loved the orchestral Liebestod. My preference would be to see Ruddigore rather than Rienzi or perhaps Brigadoon rather than La Bohème. My friends tell me that, operatically speaking, I am a philistine. But I stand unmoved.

Perhaps it is just the continental school of opera that I cannot quite get to grips with. I have always quite enjoyed Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover and Britten's A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I even remember being reasonably impressed by Iain Hamilton's Catiline Conspiracy - no tuneful work that! But if the truth were known I would rather hear the most obscure piano sonata by an equally obscure British composer than sit through the most sumptuous performance of Aida.

So why is A Village Romeo and Juliet one of my favourite musical works? There is no doubt that much of the musical content of Delius’s opera derives from his understanding and appreciation of Wagner. Parsifal is seen as a possible role model. This opera could not have come into being had it not been for the Wagner ‘tradition’ or is it ‘bandwagon’?

There are two answers to my personal conundrum. Firstly, I have loved Delius's music ever since I heard an old recording of Beecham conducting the Song of Summer. I knew the story of Eric Fenby being asked to imagine sitting on the cliffs far above the sea on the Yorkshire coast. It appealed to my teenage sense of poetry, English pastoralism and perhaps nature mysticism. I remember rushing out to buy the record. After listening to the Song I realised that the next tune was A Walk to the Paradise Garden. I played it over and over again and tried to understand what it was that so impressed me and moved me with this music. I read an epitome of the opera and realised that it somehow summed up all my adolescent feelings about the purity and nobility of love. And I was well and truly hooked.

It was not long before I went to the library and borrowed the score of A Village Romeo and Juliet. Some of my friends gave me some 'stick' when they saw me wandering round Coatbridge High School with an opera score tucked under my arm. They would have been much less surprised if it had been William Alwyn's 1st Symphony. Fortunately I was able to borrow the original LP boxed set of this recording from a girlfriend who deeply loved English music and Frederick Delius. I locked myself into my bedroom and listened to this wonderful music without a break. I was captivated; and have been ever since.

It was a great pleasure to have this CD to review. It is like finding an old friend on Friends Reunited after a break of more than quarter of a century! And it is still as delicious and as beautiful and as moving as it was nearly thirty years ago!

But this does not answer the question as to why I like this Delius opera and not Tristan. In many ways the operas are quite similar. Well, I have always felt that I ought to be an enthusiast of Tristan and Isolde - and my word I have tried - vocal score, orchestral score, and even video but to little avail. It was not until I read some words written by Robert Anderson in Grove that I suddenly realised the reason. Referring to Delius's masterpiece he says, 'The result is an operatic masterpiece with drama and music marvellously integrated, a Tristan and Isolde for the young and innocent.' It all fitted. I know I would rather listen to Merrie England than Meistersingers, so why not A Village Romeo and Juliet rather than Tristan. Perhaps I felt that Delius's score was far less pretentious than Wagner's. No-one ever told me that I ought to listen to Fred’s work, that I ought to understand and enjoy it. Au contraire, people have been amused that I like Delius and have quoted the oft-heard tale that once you have heard one piece of the old Bradfordian you've heard 'em all! Perhaps it is the relative simplicity of the story that appeals to me? Or it may be that I have a huge soft spot for Delius that is totally lacking for Wagner!

I have listened carefully to this CD. I have played a few passages over a number of times. It is nice to revisit old haunts. This is intense music; it is no bucolic romp. Yet it is the contemplative side of this music that gets to me every time. It is, as Fenby has written in the programme notes, '[A] contemplative attitude [that] goes far beyond the reach of time and far beyond the personal tragedy of Sali and Vrenchen.'

In this score I am able to find that Paradise Garden which I suppose I was in the process of leaving when I was in my last year at school and had discovered this marvellous opera. In many ways I have been trying to get back into it ever since. No surprise that Hodgson's Secret Garden is on of my favourite children's books. In a Summer Garden also written by Delius and William Baines' Paradise Gardens are two of my top twenty favourite works - a Desert Island must. My religious sensibilities are aroused by the 'garden' imagery of the Song of Solomon, the Hortus Conclusus and the glorious verse from that book that form the words to Patrick Hadley's fine anthem My Beloved Spake. But perhaps as Fenby points out, our Paradise Garden is overgrown, the song of the birds is nearly still and the beauty of it all is 'smutched' like Ben Jonson's snow.

Listening to this revelatory performance of A Village Romeo and Juliet has allowed me to slip back into the ‘Paradise Garden’ for a space. It has helped me to see that it still exists and that it is possible to remain there for refreshing breaks.

What of the libretto? Well it is hardly the place of a review to rehearse the story in any great detail, but perhaps a thumbnail sketch is appropriate.

The libretto was actually compiled by the composer himself after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get other translators to knock Gottfried Keller's story into shape.

Basically it is a tale of a young man and a young woman, Sali and Vrenchen who have fallen hopelessly in love but do not have and cannot get their parents’ blessing. In fact there is hatred between the two families over a land dispute. The land belonged to an itinerant and illegitimate Dark Fiddler who was unable to inherit due to Swiss law. The situation becomes impossible and leads to the lovers committing suicide after having known a short time of bliss. They drown in a barge on the river after having opened the 'sea cocks.'

The production of this CD is perfect. EMI Classics are to be congratulated for this re-release. The quality of the sound is excellent; bearing in mind this is a thirty-year-old recording. Robert Tear was always one of my heroes from the ’seventies. His rendition of Sali is ideal. Elizabeth Harwood plays a moving Vrenchen. It was John Shirley-Quirk who introduced me to the wonderful Songs of Travel by Ralph Vaughan Williams - settings of poems of one of my favourite Scottish writers, Robert Louis Stevenson. He gives a superb account of the Dark Fiddler. The programme notes are very good. They do not contain a complete libretto, but a condensed résumé of the plot with textual extracts. Eric Fenby wrote these notes for the original release on vinyl.

One of the bonuses of this excellent double CD is a fascinating illustrated talk by Fenby. It covers a large sweep of Delius’s work and gives a good insight into the workings of an amanuensis. One of the most moving parts of this talk is Fenby's description of how the near-blind composer dictated part of Cynara. For someone who does not know much about Frederick Delius this is the perfect introduction; from the one who knew the composer better than anyone else (apart from Jelka)

I cannot recommend this CD too highly. It is now at super-budget price and I suggest all Delius enthusiasts rush out and buy it - either for the first time or to replace their vinyl copy (Angel SBLX-3784; EMI SLS966; HMV Greensleeve EM290404-3). It is a perfect opportunity to possess for all time one of the most perfect British operas in one of the benchmark performances of all time.

For me, personally, it is like catching up with my adolescent dreams. I cannot wait to enter the ‘Paradise Garden’ just one more time!

John France

 


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