Aureole etc.




Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Orchestral Works - Vol. 1
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring
Summer Night on the River
Eventyr
Koanga - Closing Scene
Hassan: Interlude; Serenade
Paris - Song of a Great City

RPO/LPO/Sir Thomas Beecham
recorded 1927-34
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110904 [61.11]

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Orchestral Works - Vol. 2
The Walk to the Paradise Garden
Sea Drift

Fennimore and Gerda - Intermezzo
In a Summer Garden
Over the Hills and Far Away

John Brownlee (bar)
London Select Choir
RPO/LPO/Sir Thomas Beecham
recorded 1927-36
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110905 [62.42]

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Orchestral Works - Vol. 3
Brigg Fair [13.45]
La Calinda [3.25]
Hassan - Closing scene [7.23]
Irmelin Prelude [4.12]
Appalachia [37.07]
Jan van der Gucht (ten)
Royal Opera Chorus
LPO/Beecham
recorded 1928-1938
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110906 [66.12]

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These are classic performances of the gramophone and need no recommendation from me. Beecham’s role in promoting the music of Delius is well documented, as is the composer’s gratitude, and even if his later performances for EMI are better known, the Beecham magic is very much present on these three discs. I haven’t heard the original 78rpm issues, but the remastering seems to have been expertly done, even if careful listening supports the view expressed elsewhere that the performance of Brigg Fair is slightly sharp. A producer’s note alerts us to technical problems with the original discs of this 1929 performance, including pitch fluctuations. This didn’t bother me and won’t bother the majority of listeners, but presumably if the pitch is affected the actual speed of the performance has been affected also, even if only marginally. But the playing throughout the three discs is of great authority, and there certainly is something special about Beecham’s way with phrasing in this music which needs, I think, more than that of almost any composer, a sympathetic interpreter, if it is to work at all. And then the CDs are of course very cheap, and this final factor will make them irresistible for many collectors.

I could stop there, yet these discs do make me wonder once more at the explosion of interest in historical performances on record. The fact is that the sound, however remarkable it may be for its period, is execrable compared to what we may now expect. Who is buying all these discs, and for what reasons? I’m not at all suggesting that they shouldn’t be issued – that would be ridiculous in any case – but I would see most of them as working tools for historians rather than anything else. These discs, in spite of the illustrious names which appear on them, seem very much to fall into this category.

The first disc begins with On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring which was the second piece I ever heard in a symphony concert, probably in 1965, and which I have loved ever since. (The first piece – you’re dying to know – was Chabrier’s España, which I love also.) The Hallé Orchestra was conducted on that occasion by Lawrence Leonard, and I was as captivated by the final diminuendo in the Delius as I was by the wonderful pizzicato opening of the Chabrier. The present performance is lovely too, though the final notes are not so drawn out as I remember from the Hallé concert, and the reading as a whole is evocative without any trace of self-indulgent lingering. Sadly, however, I don’t think I’ll be coming back to it very often when the sound is so primitive. Why should I, in any case, when Barbirolli or Vernon Handley provide equally lovely and atmospheric performances – though very different ones – in modern sound, not to mention Beecham’s own rather more affectionate later reading on EMI?

Sea Drift was recorded almost nine years later and the difference in the quality of the sound is remarkable. All the same I have to say that my reactions were similar. When the textures are overloaded, not rare in this work, the recording simply can’t cope, and for all that you can hear them the choral basses might as well have stayed at home. A sign of what was possible with a smaller ensemble may be heard in the unaccompanied section a little more than half way through, when both choir and soloist are brought forward and much more of what is happening in the music becomes audible. But as soon as the orchestra re-enters the singers – the soloist in particular – suddenly shoot back to their original places. Better to do it that way, certainly, at that point in recording history, but the effect is comical all the same. It’s a very interesting performance, of a piece with all these Beecham performances, affectionate and expressive but avoiding sentimentality. He shaves almost three minutes off Richard Hickox’s timing on his first recording for Decca, and Hickox, as we know, is no slouch. Beecham refuses to linger, and there is something about the phrasing, noticeable in the very opening chorus, where phrase endings are cut so short that the effect is rather jaunty. I think the work can take this, as there is a danger, with the combination of Whitman’s story of the he-bird left alone when his mate disappears and Delius’ overcharged harmonies and textures, of the whole thing turning to treacle. The Australian baritone John Brownlee sings well, and clearly shares the conductor’s view that the piece should be kept moving. The chorus too, acquits itself very well, but though this is a work beloved of choral societies I don’t think the average English singer is really at home with the very particular way in which Whitman expresses his ideas. "Alabama" sounds as far away from these singers’ everyday lives as it has in any performance I’ve ever heard or, for that matter, sung in myself. The choral diction is excellent, but both they and the soloist make heavy weather of the more rapid passages in compound time: it’s laboured, and even with Beecham on the box the pathos is sometimes absent, the choir sounding jolly rather than dramatic. And here again I wonder how one would react to this performance if the sound allowed everything to be heard? As it is, and for reasons already expressed, when I want to listen to this work for pleasure I’ll turn to either of Hickox’s two performances, with John Shirley-Quirk (Decca) easily as touching as Bryn Terfel on the later Chandos performance.

When it came to the pieces I knew less well, or, in two cases, not at all, I found that the sound actually got in the way of hearing what was happening in the music. This is less problematical in the more energetic passages of Over the Hills and Far Away or Paris, where the music asserts itself more easily above the background noise. But in certain of the earliest recordings here the sound comes close to breaking up, and the more withdrawn, magical passages suffer accordingly. There’s little incentive, under these circumstances, to persevere with music you don’t already know.

A lengthy period of concentrated exposure to this music also tends to expose its limitations. There is something a little stagnant about much of it, the harmony which for the most part doesn’t seem to want to go anywhere, and a melodic line in which many of the notes seem to have been consciously chosen rather than finding their own, inevitable place. The range of orchestral colour seems limited, too, though here again I think that more modern sound would reveal greater variety. I realise that all this will not go down well with Delius enthusiasts, but I suggest that we knew this already and only concentrated and repeated listening over a lengthy period of time reminded us of it. I also suggest that although there are many large-scale works in the Delius canon, that this is a composer who is best appreciated in small doses.

Admirers of Delius, Beecham or historic performances in general will not be discouraged by my reaction to these recordings, and this is as it should be. Nothing I say will affect the reputation of the individuals concerned, and that should go as much for David Lennick, whose achievement in transferring these performances to CD is probably a heroic one, as it does for Delius and Beecham. But I wouldn’t like to think that many people would use these discs as their introduction to the music of Delius, attracted perhaps by the conductor’s reputation in this repertoire. There is more to Delius than is available to the listener here, and these discs, valuable though they are, should be heard as supplements to more modern recordings where not only the sound, but also the development of Delius interpretation over time will provide a richer, more varied and enjoyable experience.

William Hedley



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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