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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
North Country Sketches (1914)
In a Summer Garden – Rhapsody (1908)
Appalachia (1902)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.
Recorded EMI Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, 1941 (North Country Sketches, recorded on 78s); 1951 (In a Summer Garden); 1952 (Appalachia)

This is a companion issue to the two discs of Sir Thomas Beecham conducting Delius choral and orchestral works I reviewed recently. Like them the repertoire consists largely of works he had recorded once before in the 1930s and which are currently available on Naxos Historical.

Delius was born in Bradford, and the very particular topography of the Yorkshire moors is what lies behind the North Country Sketches. Of the four pieces, three evoke the seasons: only summer is absent, with, in its place, a lively movement entitled simply Dance. These pieces were new to me, and after several hearings I find them elusive and unwilling to give up their secrets. This makes me inclined to agree with Beecham’s statement in his biography of the composer – and which is quoted in the booklet note – that "There is very little of human contact here". The pieces conjure up the natural world with the composer’s habitual skill and invention, but perhaps with a certain aloof coldness.

In a Summer Garden is better known and, I think, easier on the ear on a first acquaintance. The scene is painted with almost uncanny skill, though the composer has no need to rely on onomatopoeic devices such as bees humming and birds singing when with purely musical devices, in particular his most sensitive and inventive way with woodwind solo writing, he recreates so exactly the hot, languid stillness of the scene. Another quote from Sir Thomas helps to explain why the piece is so successful: "The mood has an unimpeachable unity". This might give the impression of monotony, but in fact this is not the case. There is considerable variety of musical material, even of tempo, but never for a moment do we feel that the tranquillity of the garden has been disturbed.

Appalachia is a large-scale set of variations on "an old Negro slave song" though the origin of the theme itself is unclear. There is a lengthy introduction of great beauty and instrumental ingenuity before the first statement of the theme which is given to the cor anglais. The theme is instantly recognisable and rarely far away thereafter. Towards the end of Variation 6 a wordless chorus is heard, and as the work progresses their contribution becomes more important. In the final variation a baritone soloist joins the chorus to sing the farewell song of a slave to his loved ones before he is transported downriver to a new master. Appalachia is surely amongst the most affecting of all Delius’ works. There is a directness and simplicity of utterance which he didn’t always achieve in other pieces, though some have found the omnipresence of the theme rather tiring.

In line with the other discs in this series the performances are definitive and first class in every way. In a Summer Garden is quite extraordinarily concentrated and unified in approach, and the orchestral playing, it need hardly be said, is of the very finest quality with, in particular, some ravishing woodwind playing in Appalachia. All the recordings are in mono only, but the sound is very fine for the period, and even that of North Country Sketches, taken from 78s, can be listened to with pleasure and without having to make allowances for the sound.

The presentation is similar to the other discs too, with a lengthy article about Sir Thomas by Graham Melville-Mason, paying particular attention to his relationship with these particular pieces and including several quotes from him about the works themselves. Curiously the soloist and chorus in Appalachia are not named, and the short text they sing at the end of the work is not given, which is a pity.

This disc is an obvious recommendation for Delius enthusiasts, even those who already have the excellent discs by Handley, Barbirolli and others, and in particular the outstanding (and very cheap) reading of Appalachia by Richard Hickox, coupled with Sea Drift, originally issued on Argo in 1981 and currently available on Australian Eloquence.

William Hedley

see also reviews by Stephen Lloyd and Rob Barnett

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