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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
The Song of the High Hills [24.46]
Freda Hart (soprano), Leslie Jones (tenor), Luton Choral Society
Recorded November 1946. First issued on HMV DB 9151/3
Irmelin Prelude [4.35]
Recorded December 1946. First issued on HMV DB 6371
Serenade and Intermezzo from Hassan:
Intermezzo [1.57], Serenade [2.08]
Recorded October 1952. First issued on HMV DB 9785
A Village Romeo and Juliet:

Scene 1 [16.19], Scene 2 [9.44], Scene 3 [12.28], Scene 4 [24.40], Scene 5a [8.14], Scene 5b [8.36], Scene 6 [21.20]
Dennis Dowling (baritone), Frederick Sharp (baritone), Margaret Ritchie (soprano), Dorothy Bond (soprano), Rene Soames (tenor), Lorely Dyer, Gordon Clinton (baritone)
Recorded May, July 1948 First issued on HMV DB 6751/62
Koanga: Final scene [9.07]
Recorded January 1951. First issued on Columbia LX 1502
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
All works recorded at Studio 1, Abbey Road, London ADD
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110982-83 [71’ 57" + 71’ 47"]

 

A Village Romeo and Juliet was the fourth opera that Frederick Delius composed, and many consider it to be his finest achievement, alongside A Mass of Life. Delius wrote his own libretto in English and the story, freely adapted from the 19th century novel by Gottfried Keller, Romeo und Julia auf dem dorfe, is set in Switzerland. Although the score is dated 1900-1901, the work was subsequently modified, most significantly with the addition of the famous A walk to the Paradise Garden, the peerless orchestral interlude that takes us from scene five to scene six. (Although this is often played as a separate concert piece, the relevance and impact of this wonderful music is diminished if one is not aware of what has come before in the opera). The first performance of A Village Romeo and Juliet was in Germany in 1907 and it reached London three years later. Although it is performed quite often in continental Europe, many unfortunately will have never had the opportunity of seeing the opera performed on the stage. It is amazing to consider that in the UK neither the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, nor the so-called English National Opera have ever performed this beautiful work... However, I digress!

A Village Romeo and Juliet has been relatively well-served by a number of recordings made over many decades. The first recording, made by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1948 for HMV/EMI, is the version that we have here on Naxos. The second, and perhaps the finest, was made in 1972, again for HMV/EMI, with Meredith Davies [review] conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Beecham's orchestra as was also used on his own recording). This second recording was also made at the Abbey Road studios and had the classic combination - never surpassed in the recording studio - of Christopher Bishop as producer and Christopher Parker as balance engineer. It boasts an even better cast than Beecham’s version, including Robert Tear, Elizabeth Harwood and John Shirley-Quirk. The only problem with Davies’ recording is that it does not stick to the English version which one finds in the vocal score published by Boosey and Hawkes. It uses a new version of the libretto by Tom Hammond, especially commissioned for the Sadler's Wells revival in 1962 (and again conducted by Davies), to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the composer's birth. I personally find this libretto extremely irritating with many of the changes made seeming totally unnecessary and inferior to the albeit rather dated original version. Alas, as was HMV/EMI's custom, the LP set was quickly deleted, I believe in the late seventies, thus leaving no commercial recording available of this work, a scandal of monumental proportions. Then, somewhat surprisingly, Argo released their version with Sir Charles Mackerras conducting the Austrian ORF Symphony Orchestra with the Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the excellent combination of Arthur Davies and Helen Field in the two star roles, ably supported by the American Thomas Hampson as the Dark Fiddler. This is an excellent version and is now only available as the soundtrack of the version filmed in the Czech Republic in the 1990s and now available on DVD [review]. (Mackerras had previously conducted the work on the stage in Zurich). It was only belatedly in 2002 that the second HMV/EMI version with Meredith Davies was reissued on CD, over 20 years after the original LP recording was deleted. Also now available is a previously unreleased transcription of Beecham’s 1948 broadcast of the work, which he made just prior to the recording.

The original Beecham 1948 recording was subsequently re-issued on LP and then on CD by EMI in 1992 (and deleted some years later). This was transferred from 78s by Anthony Griffith and then digitally re-mastered by Michael Dutton and John Holland. Interestingly, the version here on Naxos comes from original recordings from the collections of David Lennick, Douglas Lloyd and Claude Arnold with the transfers and production done by David Lennick. Listening to the two re-mastered recordings side by side, one notices a considerable difference in the quality of the sound and more particularly, the volume of background noise. The opening of a Village Romeo and Juliet is preceded by a loud swishing noise on the Naxos recording which is totally absent on the EMI version. Not only is the surface noise more prominent but the sound is also harder and harsher. This makes it very difficult to compare with the other later recordings by Davies and Mackerras. Almost more than any other composer, we need to hear the detail of the orchestration and the subtlety of the sound world that Delius creates which one finds rather difficult on transfers from 78s such as the one here. Further to the poor sound quality, I have to say that in this particular recording, Beecham does not really seem to get to the heart of the music as he does in most of his other Delius recordings. In many places, the performance sounds rather rushed and sometimes jagged, and on occasion he does not seem to capture the elation which the music suggests, such as when the church bells ring merrily after the dream wedding sequence... they sound much more funereal in the Beecham version! Furthermore, the quality of the soloists leaves a lot to be desired. When one considers that Sali and Vreli are supposed to be teenagers, Rene Soames and Lorely Dyer at points sound closer to people about to pick up their old-age pensions! Although this is unfairly misrepresentative, it is perhaps due partly to some of the rather dated enunciation, characteristic of vocal works recorded in the years just after the Second World War. I also noted some unnecessary cuts in this version (for example, page 105 in the vocal score, the three bars before 23 are deleted for no obvious reason). On the plus side, there are some very touching moments. In the passage at mark 27 in the vocal score, where Vreli sings "Come sit beside me here stay by me through the night" the pace is considerably slower than in the other versions, but how poignant it sounds and how moving!

As an added bonus this two-CD set also contains an excellent performance of The Song of the High Hills recorded in November 1946. However, the sound is again rather harsh and in some places the performance rather hard-driven. We also have the Prelude to Irmelin and the Intermezzo and Serenade from Hassan. However, the biggest bonus is the final scene from Delius’ third opera, Koanga which is beautifully played and includes the wonderful orchestral interlude that leads into the epilogue sequence with the planter’s daughters having listened to this story of Koanga and Palmyra as told to them by one of the workers. A similar extract is available on David Lloyd-Jones' Delius orchestral disc, also on Naxos in a modern recording.

With the HMV/EMI CD reissue no longer available, those wishing to have the Beecham version in their collection will have to go for this Naxos historical recording, despite the fact that the recorded transfer is inferior to the EMI transfers made in 1992. However, I would strongly recommend the reader purchasing either the Mackerras or the Meredith Davies recordings before they too, in their turn, are no longer available, as both the sound quality and the interpretation are superior to this Beecham recording.

Em Marshall



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