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SIR THOMAS BEECHAM CONDUCTS DELIUS
All four volumes in boxed set

Each of the volumes is available separately if wished
SONY CLASSICAL SX5K87342 [5CDs: 65.07+70.47+41.18+69.12+61.03]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)

Eventyr (Once Upon a Time)
Arabesque for baritone, chorus and orchestra
Koanga (Closing Scene)
Hassan: Incidental music for Flecker’s drama: 1. Interlude between scenes I and II /Introduction; 2. Serenade for solo violin; 3. Short interlude; 4. Chorus behind the scenes; 5. Ballet - chorus dance of Beggars of Baghdad; 6. Chorus of Women; 7. Prelude to Act III; 8. The Great Hall of the Palace/Chorus of the Soldiers; 9. Procession of Protracted Death; 10. Serenade (solo violin); 11. Closing scene - We take the Golden Road to Samarkand
Einar Norby (bar) (Arabesque)
Leslie Fry (bar) (Hassan)
Stanley Riley (bass) (Hassan)
Arthur Leavins (violin) (Hassan)
Frederick Riddle (viola) (Hassan)
BBC Chorus/Leslie Woodgate (Arabesque and Hassan)
RPO/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. EMI Studio, Abbey Road, London 12 Jan, 3 Apr 1951 (Eventyr) 12 Oct 1956 (Hassan Serenade) 29 May 1956 (Koanga). Walthamstow Town Hall Arabesque (Oct or Nov 1955) rest of Hassan 23, 29 Nov 1955. ADD mono
SONY CLASSICAL SMK 87966 [65.07]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)

North Country Sketches (1914)
In a Summer Garden - Rhapsody (1913)
Appalachia (1902)
RPO/Sir Thomas Beecham
Rec EMI Studio 1, 14 Feb 1949 (Sketches); 27 Oct 1951 (Garden); 29 Oct, 6 Nov, 7, 13 Dec 1952 (Appalachia) mono ADD
SONY CLASSICAL SMK 89429 [70.47]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)

A Mass of Life

Rosina Raisbeck (sop)
Monica Sinclair (con)
Charles Craig (ten)
Bruce Boyce (bar)
London Philharmonic Choir/Frederick Jackson
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec Nov 1952-May 1953 EMI Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London. mono ADD
SONY CLASSICAL SM2KK89432 [2CDs: 41.18+69.12]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)

Over the Hills and Far Away
Sea Drift
Paris - Song of a Great City

Bruce Boyce (bar)
BBC Chorus/Leslie Woodgate
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra /Sir Thomas Beecham
Rec. 7 Feb 1950 (Over the Hills); Aug 1955 (Paris); 23 April, 2-3 Dec 1954 (Sea Drift). Mono ADD
SONY CLASSICAL SMK89430 [61.03]


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With the exception of a handful of HMV/EMI tapes the best sounding and latest Beecham-Delius recordings have been in the hands of CBS (now Sony) and before that with Fontana and Philips in the days of LP. I am not sure about In a Summer Garden but certainly the Sketches and Appalachia were available on CBS mid-price LPs in the early 1970s. Strange how, while the EMI-Beecham tapes have rarely been out of the catalogue, the CBS/Sonys have constantly dipped in and out of the retailers' shelves.

Let us start with the most recently issued disc which includes Eventyr and some of the Hassan music.

With this disc Sony UK, steadfast in their commitment, reach the fourth and final chapter in their mission to restore the CBS/Beecham/Delius sessions to the catalogue. At the same time (May 2003) Sony have released all four CDs in a boxed set and this review is prompted by that set.

These discs must also be seen in context of Sony's wider commitment to issue all their Beecham material in standard livery - all with the blessing of Shirley, Lady Beecham.

The CBS Delius tapes date from 1949 to 1956. They are all in mono; some missing stereo by a whisker. It is interesting that Sony have shown no inclination to find a new champion for Delius. While EMI, Universal and others recorded Delius with Barbirolli, Groves, Mackerras, Handley, Hickox and Marriner, CBS/Sony, apart from some morceaux by Ormandy and Louis Lane, have held steady to their Beecham monos now over half a century old.

Eventyr shows us Delius in Nordic mode. Like Percy Grainger, Delius loved Grieg and his music. He may have intended this piece, after Asbjornson, to be something of a Gynt tribute. This is a tone poem along the lines of Bax's orchestral Legend and Northern Ballad No. 2. The piece lacks the narrative backbone of Bax's First Ballad but the moody atmosphere of the Second and the discursive meander of the Legend are reasonable parallels. Imaginative episodes include the harp's spiccato impact (10.12), the dizzying step acceleration at 6.30 and the two 'goblin shouts' from the men of the orchestra at 7.01 and 7.28, the second one more groaningly impassioned than the first. Eventyr and North Country Sketches have the curious distinction of being the pieces most likely to please the determined anti-Delian.

Delius's operas have not been all that successful. Even A Village Romeo and Juliet is better known on disc than in the theatre. Koanga, the story of love among the plantation slaves, followed Irmelin and The Magic Fountain. Beecham believed in it sufficiently to conduct it complete on a handful of occasions. Charles Groves conducted a revival in Camden in the 1970s. The broadcast of that event, much later issued by Intaglio, used to be available. The whole Intaglio line has now disappeared from the shelves long ago. The final scene from Koanga is about the length of a compact overture. It is mostly orchestral with the voices entering towards the Appalachia-style end.

Arabesk is a song for baritone and orchestra. The singer is not wonderfully secure although he is by no means disastrous. There is also a role for female chorus. The premiere was given in Newport, Wales in 1920, almost a decade after the work's completion. The work makes ideal gramophone listening. It certainly does not easily fit into concert programmes. The words are not printed in the booklet. The same is true for Koanga.

The Basil Dean production of Flecker's Hassan was a media event of the 1920s. Dawn Redwood's excellent Thames book about Delius and Hassan is worth tracking down. It will give you full details of the Delius-Basil Dean collaboration. The music played a crucial role in making a success from this play about exotics, love, sadism, poets and the quest for the unattainable. The eleven items here are miracles of Classic FM perfection - miniatures which set scenes and narrate. Leslie Fyson swallows the odd word in The Song of the Beggars and Beecham goads his orchestra to such a lick of speed that the singers cannot quite keep up. The houri sigh of the women's chorus at tr.8 is memorable as is the wretched remorseleness of The Procession of Protracted Death with a cough at start of the track and the rustle of turning pages to be heard. In the closing scene, at 4.30, the solo violin arabesques upwards into otherworldliness like a pre-echo of Hovhaness in Fra Angelico. The bells sound dully prosaic - the only real miscalculation.

What goes around comes around. It is testimony to Beecham's melting insight and his certainty of how the music should go that these recordings have a way of returning to the catalogue time after time. As Beecham-Delius artefacts they complement the historic Naxos series reviewed here by Bill Hedley and myself as well as the stereo Beechams of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The lesson with Sony Classics has been to buy before they delete. Need I say more?

Now for the Appalachia/North Country Sketches disc …

Beecham's sympathy for Delius's hazy shimmering magic is fully on display in the Sketches which are a degree or two chillier as befits their moorland origins. While we associate Delius with warmer climes (his despising attitude to his native heath is well enough known), we can link this work with his Nordic group including Eventyr and Paa Vidderne. The bleaker sections of Autumn, the wind soughs among the trees bring us face to face with the sounds we hear in Arthur Butterworth's Moorland Symphony, Hadley’s The Hills and in the bleaker Bax of Northern Ballad No. 2. I have always loved this work and am extremely pleased that it has reappeared on CD. When arranging concerts do not forget that this is one of those works that is in four movements with each allocated to a season. Imaginative programme planners could do worse than group Bridge's Summer, Panufnik's Autumn, Foulds April-England and Wilfred Josephs' Symphony No. 7 Winter, around this work. The present recording was also previously issued in the early 1990s on Sony's British pageant series (SMK58934) with Over the Hills, Eventyr and the closing scene from Koanga (a shorter and less substantial collection than the present offering).

The other two Beecham works on this disc derive from tapes which appear here on CD for the first time. The honey warm idyll of In a Summer Garden is less sensuously pagan than Bax's Spring Fire but the dew-drop descending figures are similar. The last time I heard this Beecham-Delius Appalachia was when I bought CBS LP 61354 circa 1974. Both Appalachia and Garden are smooth sounding with hiss largely eliminated. The 78rpm origins of the Sketches are proclaimed by the busy, though hardly intrusive, surfaces. Appalachia sounds superb and its first ten minutes will conquer any doubts you may have about this version - just listen (track 6 at 3.40) to the magically jangling counterpoint of the banjo-evocation echoing from his time in Florida. This rises to a wonderfully sustained climax. In the finale the tenor's slightly mannered delivery is offset by the glories of the choral singing in what must be the briefest role for a choir in a work that plays for circa 35 minutes. It is archetypical of the theme of transience, ephemeral glory and passing time that Delius should set the words Oh honey I am going down the river in the morning. Much the same sense can be felt in the closing scene of A Village Romeo And Juliet as the two lovers are carried down the river to the ecstasy of oblivion. This is also in the same spirit as Sea Drift which embraces loss - hymning its glory in the setting of the sun.

Sony do not say so on the outside of the jewel case but these performances are, of course, in mono though such a 'shortcoming' is totally outweighed by the myriad glistening dimensions which Beecham brings to all this music.

The exceptionally informative (English only) booklet notes for each four sets are by Graham Melville-Mason. Sony are also to be congratulated for their design decisions on the series. Their superbly detailed typography and black on white approach defeats the design gurus whose efforts often undermine those who write for CD booklets.

Beecham's famed sensitivity and response to nuance is in full spate here. All that is missing is modern stereo sound. Such a pity that Norman del Mar (a Beecham disciple) never recorded Appalachia. Barbirolli is good too but Hickox (Decca) is rather too focused on grandeur at the expense of sensitivity.

Beecham's book of spells was unfaded with age and he casts his enchantment in warm balm, sunlit torment and towering affirmation in the recording of a Mass of Life. Much of this performance brings out the slow dreamy ecstasy of the mountains as in Song of the High Hills (such a pity Beecham did not record this work and the Requiem with CBS). The sound is worth more than a passing mention. It has a beguiling haziness well suited to the choral writing. This is the haze of far hills and shimmering distances. Impact is there and though our expectations must be tempered the rasp and bark of the brass in the opening animato is impressive. Fiery character is never in short supply. The solo voices, to a man and woman secure and clear, are subjected to a pleasing closer focus. The sound of the chorus is, by contrast, distanced so that it does not have the thudding frontal impact of the 1972 EMI Groves recording (reissued 1992 CMS 7 64218 2). The Norman Del Mar on Intaglio (INCD702-2 from BBC relay 3 May 1971), presumably taken from a Radio 3 broadcast, is the least transparent of the recordings and the most natural. It also enjoys the presence of a young Kiri Te Kanawa and a typically admirable John Shirley-Quirk. The Beecham Mass is tastefully balanced with fully acceptable zeroing in on instruments for effect. It is truly glorious and while previous hearings of the LPs and other versions of the Mass left me rather bored with much of the work I rarely felt the grip slacken here. I have not heard the Chandos Hickox version but I know that it is highly regarded. I have however heard a tape of a Sargent broadcast from the 1960s which had great strengths in the weight of the choral contribution; much the same can be said of the Groves. Of course the Beecham is in mono. I applaud Sony for their candour in declaring this on the disc if not on the cover. I would rate the Beecham very highly, with the Del Mar not far behind and the Groves not far behind that. As I say, I have not heard the Hickox but it will take quite something to match the supple enchantment of the Beecham. The Groves set coupled Songs of Sunset and An Arabesque while the Intaglio, which you might be able to pick up second-hand, also had Groves conducting that great rarity, the Delius Requiem.

Everything about these mid-price discs shows caring attention. There is full discographical detailing as well as notes, full texts and translations. The Sony engineers have steered astutely between the Scylla of background silence and bled sound and the Charybdis of hiss. There is hiss there if you dig deep but what I hear is the naturalness of those sessions of almost five decades ago faultlessly resurrected.

The Mass of Life set is completed by a rather unspecific talk by Beecham delivered in his waggishly drawling sing-song.

Now to the last disc …

These are prized recordings and are not new to CD. CBS (in one case just before Sony’s appearance on the scene) put out three discs in a disparate series. Masterworks Portrait gave us Hassan, with Sea Drift and Arabesk on MPK 47680 in 1991. Sony ‘British Pageant’ in 1993 gave us Over the Hills, North Country Sketches, Eventyr and Koanga’s Closing Scene on SMK58934.

I am not at all sure that I prefer Beecham's Paris over Mackerras's on CD-EMX 2185 but it is a sensitive reading of a work with more than its fair share of nodding moments. Things are quite different in Sea Drift where everyone seems equal to the demands of the score and where Boyce can be relied on to touch the wellspings of tears in this affecting hymn to loneliness and the bereft. Over the Hills, written in the wake of a thoroughly violent Norwegian storm, is an evocation of the faerylands of childhood.

If you want to capture the Delius-Beecham alchemy in sound better than the Naxos 1930s recordings this is where to go.

Performances of distilled enchantment throughout these five discs.


Rob Barnett

 



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