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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Disc 1
Over the Hills and Far Away (1895-1897) [12:55]*
Sleigh Ride (1887-1888) [5:25]*
Brigg Fair - An English Rhapsody (1907) [15:47]*
Florida Suite (1887/1889) [34:49]*
Marche-caprice [3:50] *
Disc 2
Dance Rhapsody No. 2 (1916) [7:38]*
(1890) [6:18] **
Two Pieces for Small Orchestra: No. 1, (1912) [6:57] *
Two Pieces for Small Orchestra: No. 2, Summer Night on the River (1911) [6:53] *
A Song Before Sunrise (1918) [6:01] *
Fennimore and Gerda: Intermezzo (1908-1910) [5:08]*
Irmelin: Prelude (1890-1892) [4:59]**
(1906-1907) [29:25] ***
John Cameron (baritone) ***; Maureen Forrester (contralto) ***; Beecham Choral Society ***
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 1960, 1963, Great Britain ADD
EMI CLASSICS CDS 7 47509 2 [73:15 + 73:24]

The music on this anthology was recorded when Beecham was at his best, and interest in Delius was at its height … Ken Russell’s Song of Summer (that lovely orchestral work by Delius is not on this set, alas) for BBC television’s ‘Monitor’ dates from 1968. 

Still, this could hardly be a better selection of the orchestral works by Delius played by more committed and insightful performers. The two CDs are generous and contain almost two and a half hours of music, many items of which have long represented their reference recordings. 

Of particular delight is the Florida Suite – the set’s longest piece, at just under 35 minutes. Beecham’s interpretation with the RPO illustrates particularly well an aspect of Delius not often highlighted, his sense of musical architecture … movement through a piece and references forward and back, the anticipation in each of the movements of the others and their atmospheres as carried by their tempi. Also played with similar dignity and reserve, though losing not a drop of intensity, is On Hearing the First Cuckoo. Beecham makes this more of a lament than a tone poem. And, although A Song Before Sunrise is also packed with nuances and sentiment, in Beecham’s hands it remains what it is: a song!

Similarly lyrical is the treatment of the short intermezzo from Delius opera, Fennimore and Gerda, where the insight into the lovers’ tensions is an allusion, not a depiction – just as Delius intended. Happily there’s also music from Irmelin, though it’s almost the shortest piece here. Beecham arranged a ‘Concert Suite’. Here is only the Prelude

Brigg Fair truly is an English Rhapsody for Beecham. Again, he has the orchestra let it breathe. It’s almost as though you’re hearing this emblematic piece for the first time. The same goes for the much less ambitious (and mush shorter) Sleigh Ride, which you probably are!

The Dance Rhapsody No. 2 may seem slight – until you pay more attention to the rhythm than the rather halting, but very Delian melody. It’s a mazurka interleaved with rich but curbed strings and woodwind with prominent percussion, like Sleigh Ride, and a little Elgarian: one thinks of Falstaff. Both The Dance Rhapsody and A Song Before Sunrise are good examples of the measure of Beecham’s control over his orchestra, a control that he exercises at every point without sacrificing the spontaneity of their playing. The same can be said of Summer Evening, one of three pieces on this set annotated as edited and/or arranged by Beecham.

Beecham’s gift was somehow to bring out the freshness of these highly colourful pieces at a time when mid-Century conductors and large orchestras seemed to have grown tired of the perhaps over-rendered tone poems of Strauss, Sibelius and the perceived need to lard spectacle onto those formerly exciting works of Liszt, Dvořák and Debussy. It’s as though Beecham has deliberately and gleefully left the damp in the air around Brigg in order to cool the ardour of any unfaithful lover who’s even thinking about being unfaithful to the genre.

In these well-known pieces, too, there is languor – as there should be. And melancholy. But it’s reflective melancholy that Beecham and the RPO bring to the fore, thanks – amongst other things – to the intensity and sprightliness of the wind players in particular. Neither woodwind nor brass ever drags in Brigg Fair, for example. The melodies are poignant, not pitiful. Maybe this is the kind of balance that a Handley or a Hickox brings nowadays. But at a time when other conductors were perhaps a little carried away by the pathos of Delius, Beecham truly did him proud in these respects. And here is the splendid evidence. His command of the crescendi makes a perfect impact and prevents Delius’ subtlety from becoming submerged.

The one piece whose performance might perhaps run the risk of dating a little is the only choral work here, Songs of Sunset. Such singing styles have changed so much since the 1950s and 60s and articulation become more relaxed, pointed and open. Yet this is the latest of the recordings, having been completed in 1980. Admittedly the soloists, John Cameron (1918-2002) and Maureen Forrester (b.1930), are from another era (and neither of them British: Cameron was Australian and Forrester Canadian). They do indeed perform with that subdued fortitude typical of their generation. The chorus, the Beecham Choral Society, sets this off wonderfully… relaxed, less ecstatic than elated when called on so to underline the eight wan poems of loss and sorrow by the late Victorian Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), who gave us:

“They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.”

Ample potential here for maudlin on Beecham’s part because there might also have been on Delius’. Yet neither loses focus, drags, nor wallows. Instead – as is typical of everything on this wonderful two CD set – there is wistfulness and remorse, distress and regret. But they’re all integral to the music; the music does not portray them. It embodies them. Quite an interpretative triumph. 

The ideal purposes of this collected reissue of works dating from the composer’s mid-20s to the end of the first world war are at least two: to gather for aficionados and lovers of English orchestral music, and of Delius in particular, some of the best interpretations and recordings of their kind ever made into a single affordable (its price is the kind of thing that gives recording companies a good name) source. 

In particular this constituency will want to know how good the digitally mastered transfers from those analogue sources sound. Well, very good. Inevitably these CDs cannot have the expansive depth of a modern digital recording. But they’re not boxy, nor unduly narrow in dynamic range – listen to the spaciousness of Over the Hills and Far Away, for example; it’s a piece with pianissimi and fortissimi. Not only does Beecham delight in such contrasts, but the way they are recorded - e.g. at the tutti about half way through - sounds anything but brash yet has a cheerful resonance quite in keeping with the open air to which Over the Hills and Far Away appeals. All the recordings - EMI at its best on these occasions - were good ones, and the orchestra sounds well with individual soloists nicely balanced. 

Secondly, these CDs will introduce younger (and unfamiliar) listeners new to Delius - not the most fashionable of composers 40 years on - to music very much of its time: a century ago. Significantly this music nicely indicates the truism that the English pastoral school properly influenced, and was fully influenced by, worlds way outside Great Britain. 

Indeed Delius spent much of his life outside the country – it’s impossible to ignore or dismiss the cosmopolitan influences on the composer. Beecham’s gift, though, is to see through any such set of influences and present us with the essence of Delius, which – perhaps especially for those who’ve either never taken to him and/or are new to Delius altogether – is far more sinewy, staunch and unsentimental than detracting caricatures would have us believe. The majority of the music on these two CDs is slow, to be sure, in the sense that it’s unrushed. But it’s full of spirit and – in these expert interpretations by Beecham – prizes precision and detachment as much as reflection. 

The bulk of the booklet which accompanies these two CDs is taken up with Lyndon Jenkins illuminating essay, ‘Beecham and Delius’. He wrote the classic study, ‘While Spring and Summer Sang: Thomas Beecham and the Music of Frederick Delius’, ISBN 0754607216. If you’re looking for an introduction to Delius or want to have a representative anthology of a dozen or so of his best and most highly-regarded orchestral works played by arguably his greatest interpreter, don’t hesitate to buy this welcome reissue. 

Mark Sealey


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