The idea that we should experience less familiar works
alongside standard fare seems to be at the heart of this ASV Platinum
series. In the case of this Delius issue, the most substantial item
on the disc is the neglected String Quartet movement of 1916, nicknamed
‘Late Swallows’ but well able to stand on its own, purely musical, merits.
As this piece may well be a collector’s reason for buying this disc,
it’s worth starting here.
This Brodsky performance appears from the catalogue
to have the field to itself in terms of decent modern recordings of
the work. It was very well received on its first appearance in 1989,
when it was coupled with an equally persuasive account of the Elgar
String Quartet, and it’s easy to see why. The unanimity of ensemble,
quality of tonal production and intelligence of phrasing are of a very
high order. The Brodskys are not afraid to attack themes head on, to
give musical lines real definition and bite. It is easy to dawdle in
Delius, but as many of this composer’s best advocates have shown, this
does not always benefit the music. Thus the opening movement, marked
with animation, gets playing that is just that – muscular, fleet-of-foot,
and entirely devoid of meaningless meandering. The second movement,
which follows on without a break and is marked quick and lightly,
is beautifully pointed. The effortless vivacity is very appealing, and
even the clear echoes of Debussy are but fleeting glimpses. The gorgeous
slow movement, from which the title comes, is played with a wistfulness
that is luckily devoid of sentimentality, a very easy trap in Delius.
The passage at 3.30, which could easily descend into bathos, is instead
played ‘straight’ and therefore more movingly. The muscular finale,
marked very quick and vigorously, shows superb attack and tonal
blend. There are many Delian ‘thumbprints’ in this music, but it is
obvious that the composer was enjoying moving away from programmatic
music and exploring the intellectual rigours of the chamber medium.
This superbly intelligent reading of this Quartet confirms its status
as a major work, and is certainly worth the asking price of the disc.
This is just as well, for I find some of the orchestral
performances patchy. There is a great deal of quality competition around
in many of these works. One of the best compilations is from Andrew
Davis and the BBC SO on the super-budget Apex label, and there are excellent
discs from Vernon Handley on CFP and Charles Mackerras on Decca Double.
Still, there are things to enjoy here, including a sultry, atmospheric
Song of Summer from Owain Arwel Hughes and the always excellent
Philharmonia. They create just the right sort of Delian warmth and glow,
with the ebb and flow sounding natural and unforced. Gavin Sutherland’s
Royal Ballet Sinfonia are less successful, with thin string tone and
scrappy ensemble marring their performance of the two Aquarelles - I
have to confess to preferring the original unaccompanied vocal version
anyway. The Irmelin Prelude and First Cuckoo are workmanlike
rather than inspired, and if one turns to any of the quality competition,
particularly Beecham, one will find a different order of inspiration.
Still, if they are treated as fillers to the main fare, the String Quartet,
that is plenty of justification for purchasing what is a cheap compilation.
Notes are brief and obviously culled from the original
releases, giving only the barest outline of the history and nature of
the music. Recording quality throughout is excellent. Recommended with
some minor reservations.