RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Appalachia* Variations on an Old Slave Song with Final Chorus (1902-3) [35:36]
The Song of the High Hills† for chorus and orchestra (1911-12) [28:34]
Olivia Robinson (soprano)†; Christopher Bowen (tenor)†; Andrew Rupp (baritone)*
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. All Saints Church, Tooting, London; 15-16 October 2010
CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5088 [64:24]
The Song of the High Hills
“I tried to express the joy and exhilaration one feels in the Mountains, and also the loneliness and melancholy of the high solitudes, and the grandeur of the wide far distances...” Frederick Delius writing about his The Song of the High Hills.
The 1983 Unicorn-Kanchana (DKP (CD) 9029) release of this sublime work, arguably Delius’s masterpiece, is one of my most cherished recordings. It was conducted by Delius’s amanuensis, Eric Fenby and produced by the late and still lamented Christopher Palmer (he wrote one of the best and most insightful books on Delius: Delius - Portrait of a Cosmopolitan, Duckworth, 1976, ISBN 0 7156 1547 5) who also wrote the intelligent booklet notes. In one particular section, Palmer wrote illuminatingly, “Delius had no belief in the ‘God’ of popular religious contrivance; yet he was profoundly religious in the sense that his music aspires and looks through nature to some immanent spiritual reality, unseen unknown. In the High Hills the voice of this spiritual reality is the voice, human voices which singing to no words, sound paradoxically un-human, an embodiment of ‘man in nature’ as Delius called them.” And this sonority, this ethereal music, as captured here on this CD, indeed has that most mystical quality which lifts the spirit and engages the soul.
This new recording has the benefit of superior sound and the Chandos team has certainly done Delius proud. The spatial perspectives so vital in this work, evocations of unfolding vistas as the ascent proceeds, the flashes of lightning and the sound of thunder rolling amongst the hills, the birdcalls, Alpine horns, and the sonic pictures of snowfields and stormy rain clouds – these are all startling realistic. The ecstatic choir at the work’s climax certainly has an impact; its layering is very impressive but I worry that the choir and soloists, Olivia Robinson and Christopher Bowen, are recorded too closely, risking submerging that so-important mystical quality. But taken in the context of the whole of this CD, I can live with this concern and this notwithstanding I would now place Davis’s reading alongside that of Eric Fenby.
In his preface to the score of Appalachia Delius wrote: Appalachia is the old Indian name for North America. The composition mirrors the moods of tropical nature in the great swamps bordering on the Mississippi River which is so intimately associated with the life of the old Negro slave population.
However the inspiration for this work can be traced back to the time when Delius was in Florida, near the wide St Johns River, engaged in cultivating oranges although his mind was on music. He relates that he would sit smoking on sultry nights listening, and being mightily impressed, with the complex harmonies of the singing of black farm labourers in the distance. Many Delians also believe that he fell in love with a black girl with whom he had a child. The romance came to naught but Delius never forgot it - Tasmin Little has even suggested that she was the love of his life. It may well be that some of the emotions of that time spilled over into this and so many other works besides those inspired by his time in America. So much of Delius’s music speaks of the transience and tragedy of life and love. This sadness is emphasised in the sentiments of the slave song on which Appalachia is based. These slaves were considered as being little more than commodities to be bought and sold, families being cruelly split up in the process and literally ‘sold down the river’. Delius’s music, especially in that concluding song, is full of pathos and pity for their predicament.
Sir Andrew Davis gives a beautifully-shaped and sensitive reading of Appalachia. It begins with a gorgeous atmospheric scene-setting – Delius’s slow introduction – an evocation of a sultry, hazy dusk. all muted colours. A quickening tempo ushers in the melody of the slave song first hinted at on strumming strings imitative of banjos and then in a majestic sweep conjuring up a vision of the mighty Mississippi. After this comes the statement of the theme proper first on cor anglais and then transferred to the minor key for the first variation on horn. This is followed by nine other variations in a variety of moods of joy, of reflection and almost unbearable poignancy. There is a waltz and marches and episodes of exquisite delicacy and there is some exquisite nature-painting. This leads up to that magnificent and heart-rending final variation for chorus and orchestra and baritone Andrew Rupp: strong and reassuring to his woman – ‘And don’t you be so lonesome love. And don’t you fret and cry...And you’ll find me ever waiting...’ – as the boat comes to carry him away down river.
Beautifully-shaped and sensitive readings.