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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
The Complete Delius Songbook - Volume 1
Seven Songs from the Norwegian RT V/9 (1889-1890) [22:12]
Four Old English Lyrics RT V/30 (c.1915) [9:12]
Eleven Early Norwegian Songs: ‘Over the mountain high’ RT V/2 (undated, Pub.1974) [3:53] and ‘Mountain life’ RT V/6 (1888) [3:18]
‘They are not long, the weeping and the laughter’ RT II/5 (1906) [2:44]
Two Songs for Children - ‘Little birdie’ RT V/29 (1913) 1:43]
Songs to Words by Various Poets - ‘The Nightingale has a lyre of gold’ RT V/25 (1910) [1:54] and ‘I-Brasil’ RT V/28 (1913) [3:48] [English]
Four Posthumous Songs - ‘In the Forest’ RT V/10 (1890/91) [1:58] and ‘I once had a newly cut willow pipe’ RT V/14 (c.1892/93) [2:05] [from the Norwegian]
Three Songs, the Words by Shelley RT V/12 (1891) [8:43]
Five Songs from the Norwegian RT V/5 (c.1888) [17:30]
Mark Stone (baritone) Stephen Barlow (piano)
rec. The Music Room, Champs Hill, London, 30 August -1 September, 9 December 2010
STONE RECORDS 5060192780062 [79:01]

Experience Classicsonline


A.K. Holland hit the nail on the head when he wrote (1952) that ‘in the ultimate assessment of Delius’s art it is conceivable that his songs will occupy a somewhat minor place’. Certainly when set beside the well-known orchestral works such as Brigg Fair, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and In a Summer Garden or his great choral works such as the Mass of Life and Sea Drift, they will never command a deal of attention. Delius’s situation is not in the same category as those of John Ireland or Benjamin Britten where the ‘lieder’ make up a vital and integral part of their musical achievements, irrespective of what other fine works they produced.
 
Yet there is a danger that in accepting the largely incidental nature of the songs to his corpus of music, we cast them aside as undeserving and trivial. Nothing could be more mistaken or wrong-headed. They may not define the composer’s career, but they are worthy and enjoyable examples of the genre which both entertain and move. 

I have made a quick check of these songs against Robert Threlfall’s (RT) catalogue and also the Mary Christison Huismann Guide to Research and conclude that there seem to be about 61 songs currently listed. The present CD contains some 27: the others remain to be issued. 

Any consideration of this excellent new Delius CD will involve the listener taking a view about the use of English throughout. I am a traditionalist at heart and consider that if a song, opera or oratorio is written in a particular language, then that is how it ought to be heard. There are times when I do get off my ‘high-horse’ - for example, with some of the excellent performances at the Coliseum with English National Opera. The problem arises with a number of the songs recorded here: the beautiful ‘Funf Lieder’ and the ‘Sieben Lieder’ both ‘from the Norwegian’ which Delius originally set in German! The purist (or the pedant) would argue that they must therefore be sung in German. However as they had already been translated (Norwegian to German), then another translation (German to English) does not do too much harm to the artistic integrity of the music. 
The arguments in favour of English in this particular case are twofold. Firstly, it allows the listener more easily to approach and understand some fine songs that are not well-known to the general recital-going or gramophone-listening public. The second argument is more convincing: the scores of these songs typically have the English translation written above/beneath the German text. So the editor and the publisher, if not the composer, must have imagined performances of these songs in English as well as in German and, much less likely, Norwegian.
 
There does not appear to be a chronological format to the track-listing on this CD, however the order chosen makes for an attractive programme.
 
The recital opens with the lovely Seven Songs from the Norwegian which were composed in 1889-1890. Delius had been impressed by the literature he had read whilst visiting Grieg in Norway. In fact, the Norwegian composer had set six of these seven texts (‘Young Venevil’ was the exception). These are songs that are straightforward and often employ a simple diatonic or modal tune with a more chromatic accompaniment. Interestingly, six of the present translations of these poems were made by Peter Pears. They make a good introduction to any exploration of Delius’s songs.
 
The latest group of songs in this recital are the Four Old English Lyrics. The liner-notes point out that English poetry makes up a ‘disappointing eleven items in Delius’s song catalogues’ - not including the Maud settings and Henley’s Late Lark. The present four were composed during the Great War after the composer had been forced to return to England. At this time many English composers had been seduced by Elizabethan music ‘and were trying to catch its spirit, sometimes with pseudo-Tudor and modal sophistications’. Perhaps the best known exponent of this style was Delius’s friend Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) who was a composer and an editor of Elizabethan musical material. However Delius does not attempt to use the prevailing retro ‘song fashion’. These four numbers, ‘Spring, the sweet Spring’, ‘To Daffodils’, ‘So white, so soft, so sweet is she’ and ‘It was a lover and his lass’ are written in a complex ‘Euro’ style that reflects considerable chromaticism and an involved and sometimes awkward melody.
 
Interestingly, there are only two of the ‘Four Posthumous Songs’ recorded on this CD. I hope that the other two will appear later. However, both ‘In the Forest’ and ‘I once had a newly cut willow pipe’ are derived from Norwegian texts: the other two are from the German. The notes suggest that these are the latest (1891-1901), of the Norwegian songs, in spite of their relative simplicity. I find them a little edgy to listen to: they are both introspective and despairing in tone.
 
I wonder why only one of the Two Songs for Children was included on this CD. According to the catalogues these were originally conceived for unison or two-part chorus with pianoforte accompaniment. They were composed in 1913 for use in American schools. Both songs were to texts by Tennyson: ‘What does the little birdie say?’ and ‘The Streamlet’s Slumber Song’. The first song is quite charming and has a number of ‘Delian’ fingerprints in the accompaniment. Could they not have squeezed the other one in?
 
I must admit to enjoying the Three Songs, the words by Shelley (1891) in spite of their critical failings. Trevor Hold has pointed out that the composer wrote these ‘in the only English tradition that he was aware of, the drawing room ballad’. He then outlines their defects, including ‘hackneyed figurations and harmonies’ in the piano part, ‘sentimentality of conception in which emotions are falsified and sent melodramatically ‘over the top ...’’ These are amongst his earliest published songs. Yet they are, to my ear at least, good examples of the ballad genre and deserve to be given an occasional airing.
 
A number of other songs recorded here include two of the Eleven Early Songs which were published in 1974 as ‘songs hitherto uncollected’ -‘Over the mountain high’ and ‘Mountain life’. One of the songs from the composer’s Songs of Sunset which was originally scored for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra is also presented with piano accompaniment. This version derives from a manuscript sketch prepared before the choral work was composed. Finally, Henley’s ‘The Nightingale has a lyre of gold’ and Fiona McLeod’s ‘I-Brasil’ which explores the idea of the legendary island off the West coast of Ireland are included. ‘I-Brasil’ is one of my favourite Delius’ songs: it manages to nod towards a Scottish folk-song style without adopting any kind of obvious ‘tartanry’.
 
The CD concludes with Five Songs from the Norwegian. These are amongst the earliest of the Scandinavian settings, being composed in 1888. They are dedicated to Nina Grieg. In comparison to the slightly later Shelley songs, these five lyrics achieve a near perfect balance between text, melody and accompaniment. The difference could not be more striking. The first song, the ‘Slumber Song’, is surely faultless. The entire set is possibly the most moving sequence in this recital.
 
The CD is well-presented with an excellent performance by Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow. The notes are extremely helpful and contain the texts of all the songs preceded by a good introduction to the composer’s life and work. Detailed remarks explain some of the often convoluted translation and publication history. My only concern is the uniformity of ‘voice’: I would have liked an edition that made use of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, where appropriate. Much as I have enjoyed Mark Stone’s attractive and well-rounded renditions, I would have preferred a little variety such as Hyperion provided in the Frank Bridge and John Ireland cycles.
 
This CD is an essential purchase for all enthusiasts of Fred Delius in particular and English ‘lieder’ in general. It has been argued that Delius’s songs are not as ‘good’ as those of RVW, Warlock or other English composers. However, any hearing of this disc must encourage the listener to explore this ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ aspect of the life and works. The last word can go to A.K Holland who wrote that ‘measure for measure … [these songs] yield a fruitful reward to the singer of intelligence and imagination as the work of a master who has acres to till but does not disdain to cultivate his flower-garden.’ For ‘singer’ in this assessment we can substitute ‘listener’.
 
The present CD is a fine introduction to these songs and I look forward to the subsequent volume.
 
John France 

see also review by William Kreindler

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 


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