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'
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
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
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
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
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
Performances of distilled enchantment throughout
these five discs.