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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Orchestral Works, Volume 4

Marche Caprice (1889-90) [3:33]
Recorded 19 December 1946
Brigg Fair (An English Rhapsody) (1907) [16:11]
Recorded 26 November 1946
North Country Sketches (1914) [24:17]
Recorded 14 February 1949
Over The Hills and Far Away (1897) [13:45]
Recorded 7 February 1950
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912) [6:29]
Recorded 8 May 1948 and 19 December 1946
Dance Rhapsody No. 1 (1908-09) [11:57]
Recorded 29 October 1952
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110984 [76:12]


 

One hears so much about "the magic of Beecham", and this is a disc which demonstrates that indefinable quality. Please donít ask me to define it or explain it technically; I canít. Iím afraid the best I can do is to say that everything about the way the music is played on this CD just sounds "right". I think in part itís something to do with the pacing. Beecham had the confidence, the belief in Delius, to trust to his instincts and allow the music the time and space to breathe. That in turn meant that in his hands Deliusís unique harmonies could make their effect. Also Beechamís fastidious ear for balance allowed the many details of this composerís very individual orchestral palette to register.

This CD gathers together a useful selection of the recordings that Beecham made for HMV and for Columbia between 1946 and 1952. The earliest, Marche Caprice, Brigg Fair and part of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring were set down in the immediate aftermath of the Delius Festival that Beecham mounted in London in October and November 1946. As Lyndon Jenkins tells us in his characteristically interesting and well-informed notes, this festival featured the first London appearances of Beechamís new Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and these recordings were among the very first that the orchestra made.

Itís a testament to the quality of the players that Beecham assembled and to the conductorís own skills that the RPO sounds anything but new on these recordings. Listen, for example, to the ravishing playing of the strings in the yearning passage between 4í46" and 6í32" of Brigg Fair. And how lovingly Beecham shapes these pages, clearly revelling in the seductive sounds conjured up by Deliusís muse and his playerís collective skills. The whole performance of Brigg Fair is quite superb and very atmospheric. The many quiet pages are delivered with great subtlety but the climaxes, such as the final one that thrills us at 13í57", are ardently played.

As Lyndon Jenkins tells us, for some reason Beecham was dissatisfied with the original recording of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and so the first of the two 78-rpm sides was re-made in 1948. One interesting side-effect of this was that there had been several personnel changes in the orchestra by then, one of which had seen Jack Brymer replace Reginald Kell as principal clarinet. So we hear, if I may put it this way, two different, but very distinguished "cuckoos" in the one recording. Jenkins helpfully points out the exact point in the track where the side-break occurs, However, I must come clean and say that when I listened before reading his note I didnít notice the join, which is a tribute to the skill of the Naxos transfer engineers.

Over The Hills and Far Away also receives a masterly performance. The very opening, happily reprised towards the end of the piece, is one of the most magical passages in all Delius as a solo horn calls out gently across wide mountain vistas. The effect is tremendous here Ė was the horn player Dennis Brain, I wonder? However, not all is gentle poetry. When the music becomes more vigorous (at 2í59") thereís real strength and red-blooded urgency in Beechamís direction. This performance is a joy from start to finish.

For devotees of Beecham in Delius this collection will be of particular value since it enshrines Beechamís only commercial recording of North Country Sketches. These four pieces are not heard all that often but Beecham makes out a characteristically good case for them. The first one, ĎAutumn, the wind soughs in the treesí, is most evocative while in the next one, ĎWinter Landscapesí, you can sense the icicles glistening. The final piece is entitled ĎThe March of Springí and Beecham conveys, effortlessly it seems, the vernal freshness of the music and, later, its ecstatic excitement as Spring breaks forth.

Lyndon Jenkins includes in his note Beechamís hilarious comments on the problems caused by an inexpert player of the bass oboe when Delius conducted the première of Dance Rhapsody No. 1 in 1909. Happily there are no bass oboe "incidents" to mar this Beecham reading and Jenkins is right to draw attention to the tender and eloquent contribution of the solo violinist towards the end (from 8í47").

As Iíve indicated, the notes accompanying this CD are excellent. So too are the transfers. The recordings are remarkably good when one considers that some of them are nearly sixty years old. An admirable amount of detail is reported and on my equipment I detected very little surface noise. Certainly I canít imagine anyone buying this disc finding the sound quality to be an obstacle to enjoyment.

But itís the performances that matter. Without exception they are superb. The conducting is consistently sympathetic, imaginative and idiomatic, just as youíd expect. The execution by the fledgling RPO is of the highest order. These recordings are as essential to any Delian as they are self-recommending. If you havenít yet sampled Beecham in Delius and wonder what all the fuss is about this modestly priced anthology is an excellent way to find out. Naxos have put us in their debt by restoring these performances to the catalogue. Strongly recommended.

John Quinn



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