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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Over the Hills and Far Away – Fantasy Overture (1897)
Sea Drift (1904)
Paris (The Song of a Great City) (1899)
Bruce Boyce, baritone; BBC Chorus
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham.
Recorded EMI Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, 1950 (Over the Hills and Far Away) and 1955 (Paris) and at Walthamstow Town Hall, 1954 (Sea Drift)

Each of these works featured in the Naxos Historical series of Beecham recordings from the 1930s which I reviewed recently. Inevitably struck by the authoritative nature of those performances I felt that most listeners’ pleasure would be compromised by the poor sound quality. Enormous strides had been made in recording techniques in the two decades or so which separate these two series of recordings, and although these Sony issues are still very much historical in terms of their sound, this no longer stands in the way of our enjoyment.

Beecham’s view of this music stays remarkably consistent, and though he is marginally more expansive in the later readings he is still very careful to avoid lingering. This is wholly admirable in music which risks stagnation if the conductor neglects forward movement in favour of incidental beauty.

The magical, evocative opening of Over the Hills and Far Away is beautifully shaped by Beecham, as is the quiet passage later on in the work where the harmonies and orchestral colours recall Grieg. The faster passages, and in particular the thunderous close, are striking examples of the way Beecham was able to fire up his players.

The big, Straussian tone poem Paris is another work containing music of a forceful nature which we tend not to associate with this composer. Delius spent many years living in Paris, a city he loved, and it was there that he met the painter Jelka Rosen whom he later married. From the mysterious opening – Paris by night? the Seine? – to the passages suggesting café music and amorous rendezvous the music is masterly, extremely evocative and atmospheric. Beecham is masterly too, superbly at one with the spirit of the work and encouraging his musicians to wonderful playing.

The recording in Over the Hills and Far Away is very good for its period. There is a certain hardness to the sound, of course, but orchestral detail is audible. The sound breaks up slightly on timpani rolls, but this is of little importance, and in any case there is simply no comparison between this and the sound of the 1936 recording. Paris receives a recording which is even a little sweeter and richer.

Sea Drift is not an easy work to bring off. The score suggests an approximate timing of thirty minutes, but Beecham took slightly under twenty-four minutes in 1936, and a minute or so longer in 1954. Richard Hickox adds rather more than another minute in his Chandos recording. If the overall pacing of the work is too slow the result will be lachrymose and we will lose our patience, and hence our sympathy, with the grieving he-bird whose mate disappears one day and never returns. Conversely, this poses problems in one or two faster passages of choral music where any suggestion of jauntiness would be totally out of place. It is here that I find Beecham’s later reading to be markedly superior to the earlier one, with these faster choral passages better integrated into the overall conception of the piece. The actual recorded sound of the chorus in 1936 was particularly disappointing, distressingly dim and lacking in bite, with many of the inner lines inaudible. In 1954 the chorus is still recorded distantly, but far more of the music can be heard, and the sound of the four voices is much better integrated. The choir sings very well with excellent diction. The soloist, Bruce Boyce, is less successful than his 1936 Australian counterpart, however. "O I am very sick and sorrowful" he sings at one point, but his rather all-purpose sadness leads to a lack of variety of characterisation, and such moments as this pass for nothing. Technically his singing is difficult to fault, and his voice is extremely beautiful: listen to the exquisite cadence at the end of "… this gentle call is for you, my love, for you." But the tone is unvaried, and Sea Drift needs more than this. He is placed nicely just in front of the orchestra, with the choir more distant. One or two instruments are artificially helped, with the strange result that the solo violin and the two harps appear in jumbo-sized incarnations, playing much louder at certain moments than the singing of the whole chorus. As in 1936 Beecham is careful to keep the music moving forward, but in the later recording he is even more successful at creating the very particular atmosphere of this work: loss, mourning, the devotion of the one creature for another, the natural world. He also takes more time over the long, slow passage which precedes the final pages, and the effect is less brisk overall where there was before an almost businesslike quality; it’s more affectionate, but still totally lacking in self-indulgence. It’s a great performance, though the rather monochrome soloist does count against it.

There are other outstanding performances of these pieces to be had. Sir Charles Mackerras conducts a superb reading of Paris on Classics for Pleasure, and both of Richard Hickox’s readings of Sea Drift are excellent. But comparisons are irrelevant, I think, given the more than acceptable sound and the special status of these performances. Beecham, in a class of his own, is not to be missed.

William Hedley

See also reviews by Stephen Lloyd and Rob Barnett

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