Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)

Orchestral Music arranged for two pianos – Volume 1

A Dance Rhapsody (arr. Percy Grainger) (1908) [13:39]
On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring (arr. Rudolf Schmidt-Wunstorf) (1912) [5:57]
Brigg Fair (arr. Philip Heseltine) (1907) [15:57]
Poem of Love and Life (arr. Balfour Gardiner and Eric Fenby) (1918) [19:20]
A Song of Summer (arr. Eric Fenby) (1929) [9:21]
La Calinda (arr. Joan Trimble) (1895-97) [3:47]
Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi (pianos)
rec. The Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham England, 21-22 April 2011
SOMM SOMMCD 0112 [68:04]
Given that Delius once advised a prospective conductor to be wary of judging his music in a piano-reduction form – he felt the heart of it lay in the orchestral colour he achieved – one might think a disc devoted to just such reductions might be of limited interest or worth. The liner would seem to underline this query by emphasising the fact that such transcriptions were more often than not a commercial decision driven by the popularity of such reductions in the domestic piano-duet market. However, that does not take account of two major contributing factors – the arrangers and how they responded to the task and the performers. The good news is that on both counts one’s knowledge and appreciation of Delius’s work is increased and indeed the composer’s injunction would seem overly cautious.
Six works are presented here and this disc is the first volume of a complete cycle to include all the Delius transcriptions for two pianos. Of thirty-three orchestral works nine were arranged for two pianos and nine for piano duet – three works being duplicated in both formats. Delius is an elusive composer and one whose music can wilt in unsympathetic hands. The two piano team of Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi captures his spirit ideally and the real Delius emerges with a wide emotional range from vigorously muscular to beautifully lyrical to miniature tone-poet. Technically these two players are totally unfazed by any of the complexities the various arrangers throw at them. Of particular interest on this disc is the different way in which three of Delius’s greatest supporters approach the transcription of their idol. Not surprisingly Percy Grainger in the Dance Rhapsody No.1 is the most overtly virtuosic in a way that would befit his own status as piano virtuoso. What I find fascinating is just how Grainger-esque – in the style of his A Children’s March the work appears. This is one of the works duplicated for both two pianos and piano four hands. The arranger of the latter version was Philip Heseltine/Peter Warlock and his transcription appears on a BIS disc of his complete Delius transcriptions played by Noriko Ogawa and Kathryn Stott. Fine though Callaghan and Takenouchi are they must cede the palms of virtuosity to the BIS team although at a push I probably prefer the little extra colour a second complete keyboard affords and the added flamboyance of Grainger’s version. To be honest I am very happy to have both versions. Interestingly Heseltine queried the composer when making the Brigg Fair adaptation featured here – Heseltine’s first – whether they should be restricted to what was playable (and practical) or should they ‘include everything’ (for the benefit of study). Delius’s response was that they should be the former but give a good idea of the work. Actually the only work here where I really miss the orchestra is that self-same Brigg Fair. That is not a sleight of either the transcription or performance but actually a compliment to the miraculous orchestral dawn Delius achieves in the original. As presented here shades of Debussian impressionism (that often irritates Delian die-hards) are present. It is all but impossible for the pianos to maintain the shimmering tone of the orchestra or achieve the range of timbres and colour that mark out this set of variations as one of Delius’s greatest works. Here, as elsewhere I did feel the tone of the Steinway Model D hardens at climactic moments taking on a clangourous edge that is absent from the same instruments on the BIS recording.
The rarest work in any form presented here is the tone poem Poem of Life and Love. According to the liner-note this is a late work – 1918 in its orchestral form – but an unsatisfied Delius set it aside incomplete. It is so rare that the first recording of the original version appeared on Dutton only a year or so ago. The piano duet transcription is of especial interest because Delius’s amanuensis Eric Fenby – together with Balfour Gardiner – was responsible for the transcription. Of particular interest is the fact that Delius – with the help of Fenby – ‘lifted’ the lyrical main tune (and best music) and enshrined it in the late and glorious A Song of Summer. If memory serves there is a rather wonderful sequence in the famous Ken Russell drama-documentary of that same name where the young Fenby is asked by Delius to read the earlier work at the piano during which Fenby comments to the effect that it’s no good at all before the climactic music of the later work rises to its ecstatic climax. It makes for a powerful visual sequence but also leaves one thinking that Delius’s instinct about the early version was probably right. This is a long work – over nineteen minutes – and is one to give Delius critics plenty of ammunition. It suffers from a rambling form and frankly overstays its welcome. All that being said I am extremely pleased to now know this piano duet reduction. With an unfamiliar work you really can appreciate the study value of this format and as elsewhere on the disc Callaghan and Takenouchi prove to be both passionate and persuasive advocates. There is a neat piece of programming putting Fenby’s transcription of A Song of Summer next – the juxtaposition showing that the later work at less than half the length of the former gains immeasurably through its tighter and more focused structure. Whatever sickness might have ravaged the body Delius’ mind was clearly as astute as ever.
The final works on the disc are two ‘lollipops’ – the ever-beautiful La Calinda and the work which defines Delius for many people - for good or bad! - On hearing the first cuckoo in Spring. The former is transcribed by Joan Trimble. She was an Irish pianist/composer and half of a piano duet with her sister Valerie who were probably most famous for the fact that Arthur Benjamin composed his Jamaican Rumba for them. Since this is a deliberately simpler work it is appropriate that the transcription mirrors that. Not that Trimble spared herself considerable technical challenges – the scurrying flourishes mimicking the same music for the strings in the original are nimbly dispatched here. A tiny typo on the liner cover repeats the timing of The Song of Summer for La Calinda – it should read 3:47. First Cuckoo is transcribed by Rudolf Schmidt-Wunsdorf about whom the liner tells us absolutely nothing. All I can find is that he is a composer born in 1916 who has produced music seemingly aimed at children. The transcription is perfectly good but cannot capture the unique magic of the orchestral original – this was the music after all that Fenby heard on the radio which so bewitched him that he made the now famous pilgrimage to Grez sur Loing.
Ultimately this is a disc aimed at the Delius aficionado; the sponsorship of it by the Delius Society amongst others tells us as much. That being the case the paucity of liner information is both a mistake and a disappointment. Surely there could have been an expert in the subject to illuminate how the various arrangers approached their specific tasks. Instead writer Martin Lee-Browne provides a brief general comment on each work; valid as such but telling the target audience nothing they will not already know. The excellent pianists each get a page of biography which does little more than list their considerable achievements – but again I would have appreciated a performer’s insight instead. Robert Threlfall’s notes for BIS issue are not much longer but far more informative. The liner here is written in English and French. The engineering and production of this disc is good without being outstanding. Certainly Volume 2 will be waited for with considerable interest although for those who feel that there is only room for one disc of Delius played by two pianists in their collection I would recommend the BIS disc as a first option.
  Nick Barnard
Ultimately a disc for the Delius aficionado.