Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Overture: The Wasps [8:41]
The Lark Ascending* [13:54]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Florida Suite [37:18]
Summer Evening [6:06]
Michael Bochmann (violin)*
English Symphony Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. Great Hall, Birmingham University, 14-16 July 1989. DDD.
NIMBUS NI5208 [65:59]
This CD came to me as a result of a numerical transposition error instead of NI5280. I’m glad that the mistake was made: I missed this recording when it was first issued, and the Florida Suite is one of my favourite Delius works though it’s sadly neglected, apart from the section which was later re-worked as La Calinda. The Beecham recording which, in its LP manifestation on the EMI HQS label, was a regular visitor to my turntable, is no longer available complete on CD.
There is a good budget-price recording from the Ulster Orchestra and Vernon Handley on Chandos (CHAN6628, with The First Cuckoo in Spring and North Country Sketches, or on a 2-for-1 set, CHAN241-37). I recommended the download of CHAN241-37, The Essential Delius, on which those Handley performances are joined by equally fine Delius from Norman del Mar and Richard Hickox, in my January 2009 Download Roundup – here – but I was interested to see what the ESO and William Boughton made of the Florida Suite.
First, however, we have performances of two well-known Vaughan Williams works. The Wasps Overture is best heard in the context of the complete incidental music which VW wrote for the Aristophanes play, as on the 2-CD Hallé recording which MWI Classical Editor Rob Barnett made Recording of the Month (CDHLD7510 – see review.) Here the Overture receives a fairly brisk performance from Boughton and the NSO, though at the risk of making an excruciating pun it isn’t quite buzzing with the excitement that the best performances can bring out, even at a slower tempo. Just to remind you how subjective opinion can be, you should be aware that the Gramophone reviewer in 1990 thought that Boughton imparted tremendous zest to this work. More importantly, I’m decidedly at odds with his opinion that the Florida Suite is immature and dull. Chacun à son goût. Perhaps it would take off if Classic FM were to plug it as much as they have The Lark Ascending.
The Lark also seems to ascend very gently – this is after all a pastoral piece, where a gentle approach is in order – so I was surprised to find that Boughton’s 13:54 is actually rather faster than most performances. Bryden Thomson, for example, takes 15:30 (Chandos CHAN8554, with the Fifth Symphony, or CHAN9775, with other short VW works), and Mark Elder, on Hallé, clocks in at 15:18, a version which Em Marshall thought rather prosaic (English Landscapes, CDHLL7512 – see review). David Lloyd-Jones’ lark also takes over 15 minutes as the filler to his CD of Job (Naxos 8.553955). On his second recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto, with the CBSO and Simon Rattle, where The Lark Ascending is the filler, Nigel Kennedy takes all of 17:39, without seeming unduly slow. (EMI 5034172, at budget price: avoid the full-price original, which still seems to be on offer.) The paradox is that these recordings show that it is possible to adopt a slower tempo than Boughton’s and yet seem less languorous by keeping the music moving forward.
The bulk of the Nimbus CD is taken up by the Florida Suite. Here the competition is less fierce. Rob Barnett recommended a Richard Hickox recording on an EMI British Composers recording which has been deleted – see review – and Ian Lace the inexpensive Chandos Collect reissue of Vernon Handley’s recording (CHAN6628 – see review), now also available in the 2-for-1 Essential Delius set (see above). Hickox, whose recording remains as a download from passionato (3705652), Handley and David Lloyd-Jones on Naxos (8.553535, with Over the Hills and Far Away and the closing scene from Koanga) were my comparisons for the Nimbus, together with the one movement, Daybreak, of Beecham’s complete performance which remains available. We really must have the complete Beecham back: EMI please note.
Beecham takes Daybreak faster than any of the more modern recordings but, with typical panache, gets away without sounding perfunctory. Hickox is close to Beecham’s timing, while Handley is a little slower, Lloyd-Jones slower still and Boughton slowest of all. I’m going to do one of those annoying things that reviewers sometimes do and fail to plump for one performance: having listened to all these performances several times, I find that they all capture the magic of this opening movement, and of the whole Suite, to a degree which leaves me thoroughly satisfied. I included all details of the download versions of all four in my May, 2010, Download Roundup - here – but, if I am forced to choose one for my Desert Island, it will have to be the Lloyd-Jones, until the complete Beecham reappears.
The Nimbus recording is completed by an attractive, idiomatically languorous performance of Summer Evening – slightly brisker than Beecham, but almost equally evocative. The recording is good – the kind of recording that doesn’t draw attention to itself for good or ill – and the notes, by Nicholas Williams, are informative.
If it’s the Florida Suite that you are looking for, the Nimbus recording will do fine: it brings an idiomatic Summer Evening and two very decent, if slightly less than ideal, performances of the Vaughan Williams couplings. If you are looking for an all-Delius programme at a budget price, Lloyd-Jones on Naxos is unbeatable, while Hickox (download only) and the truncated Beecham are also excellent. If you are worried that you may agree with those who reject the charms of the Florida Suite, or simply wish to make your own comparison, subscribers to the Naxos Music Library can stream the Lloyd-Jones, Boughton and Handley recordings.
Brian Wilson
A strong contender principally for the neglected Florida Suite