Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Brigg Fair - An English Rhapsody (1907) [18:43]
Piano Concerto - Early version in three movements (1897-1904) [30:01]
Idylle de Printemps - Morceau symphonique (1889) [10:18]
Paris - A Nocturne (The Song of a Great City) (rev. ed. Beecham) (1899) [18:43]
Howard Shelley (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. Henry Wood Hall, RSNO Centre, Glasgow; 20-22 December 2011
CHANDOS CHAN 10742 [75:35]
Straight to one of my favourite Delius works – Paris; and in Chandos’s brilliant finery, how glorious it sounds. Initially, I was taken aback by what I felt was an altogether too brisk, too business-like view that Davis’s new recording of this Beecham revised and edited version presented. However, on repeated hearings I began to warm to its energy, colour, warmth and opulence. By the way, the album notes give no explanation of the whys and wherefores of Beecham’s revision.
Davis’s reading on this CD lasts for just 18:43. Compare this perceived brevity with some established recordings: Mackerras’s 1991 EMI Classics recording (review) takes 21:49; Del Mar’s 1990 Unicorn-Kanchana (DKP(CD)9108) (review) comes in at 25:38 (too slow for some but for me completely captivating) and even Beecham’s own celebrated vital and moving 1934 recording clocks up 22:07. I have still to listen to Andrew Davis’s earlier recording of Paris now on Warner Apex (review) which lasts 22:28.
Delius’s vision vividly conjures up: hedonistic pleasures under garish lights, grisettes and their partners of the night dancing in gay abandonment, so much joy to be crowded in before dawn’s reality breaks through; all these high spirits contrasted with tender romantic moments in quiet places. Davis’s opening evocation impresses, deep down in the orchestra, quiet as evening falls before a thousand lights twinkle and the City noisily awakens to pleasure. Colour and orchestral transparency and detail impress too in Davis’s reading and the ‘night-life’ music is joyous and unbridled enough but I miss the feeling of greater abandon that Del Mar brings to his reading, especially to that gorgeously ‘vulgar’ dance hall tune. I liked, too, Del Mar’s treatment of that passage that seems to intimate the transience of life and love, as does so much of Delius’s music. Del Mar suggests, perhaps in a quiet avenue away, momentarily, from all the hedonism, that an infinite sadness is being experienced, an intense loneliness and, perhaps, aching recollections of love lost (18:50). For me, Davis does not reach this intensity.
I should add that Mackerras scores highly too, a most satisfying Paris and one that I would not like to be without – and also included in the EMI Eminence edition that’s in my collection, the Violin and Cello Concertos with Tasmin Little and Raphael Wallfisch respectively.
Delius’s piano concerto was written in the grand Late-Romantic tradition and its lyricism is greatly influenced by Grieg (1843-1907) who had befriended the young Delius. Its more bravura passages owe something to Liszt. The rival recording of the three-movement version of the Concerto is the 2005 Hyperion recording (review) with Piers Lane and the Ulster Orchestra conducted by David Lloyd Jones that takes just short of 29:00. On balance, I rather favour Davis’s new more romantic, more deeply felt recording.
Delius had completed the score of a one-movement Fantasy for piano and orchestra as early as 1897. Early sketches were written in Florida. This material was subsequently developed into the three-movement Piano Concerto that was premiered in Elberfeld on 24 October 1904, by Julius Buths, conducted by Hans Haym. Delius subsequently reverted to his original one-movement format, the form in which the Concerto is usually heard - after Delius, two years on from its 1904 premiere, removed its third movement later to incorporate some of its material, more effectively, in his Violin Concerto of 1916. More minor revisions, approved and applauded by Delius, came later, at the hand of its dedicatee, Theodor Szántó: a pupil of Busoni. The version we hear most often today is that edited by Sir Thomas Beecham.
In addition to Grieg’s lyrical influence, the first movement has a grand sweep with passion and defiance as well as tender romanticism. The customary Delian fingerprints are evident too in its pastoral dreaming. The Largo slow movement is deeply felt, its limpid beauty nicely realised by Howard Shelley and Davis. Again the composer’s familiar figures are recognisable: his individualistic dance rhythms and those distant horn calls and figures associated with those distant high vistas Delius loved so much. Grouchy lower strings launch the third movement that mixes bombast, reverie and tenderness.
Regarding rival versions of the one-movement version, there are two recommended recordings: the 1969 Decca recording (470 190-2) [22:10] with Jean-Rodolphe Kars and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson (review), and the 1990 Unicorn-Kanchana (DKP(CD)9108) [21:52] recording with Philip Fowke and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar, the same CD that has the version of Paris I favour – see the first paragraph above (review). I prefer the more dreamily romantic atmosphere of the Decca performance. Both recordings are very good and both soloists shine.
Delius’s English Rhapsody, Brigg Fair, is a set of variations on a Lincolnshire folk tune. As Andrew Burn remarks in his album notes, “Delius’s use of the term ‘Rhapsody’ might imply a loose musical structure; however, this is far from the case, for the work takes the form of a set of 17 clearly defined variations on the folksong, gathering momentum to reach a climax shortly before the end.”
It was on the fift’ of August
The weather fine and fair
Unto Brigg Fair did I repair
For love was I inclined.
Davis’s glowing reading of Delius’s lovely, hazy-summer, pastoral evocation is set on a Chandos sound-stage of wide perspectives. Davis spins together the variations, beautifully dovetailing them, silkily integrated them through diverse moods ranging from quiet serenity to the great central climax that is such a great unrestrained outpouring of pastoral joy.
The little-known Idylle de Printemps was never performed during Delius’s lifetime. It had to wait until 1995 before it was given its premiere by the Northern Philharmonia under the baton of David Lloyd-Jones. It has been recorded by Lloyd-Jones (Naxos 8.505077) and by Mark Elder on Hallé (review). An early work, it was composed in 1889 at Ville-d’Avray. The influence of Grieg is very clear. It is constructed around its endearing oboe theme. This is a charming little gem that ought to be far better known and in Davis’s reading, it enchants.
Containing much lesser-known music this is an enchanting addition to the Delius discography.
An enchanting addition to the Delius discography.
Nick Barnard has also listened to this disc but with less pleasureThis is the third new release by Chandos of the music of Delius since Andrew Davis took over podium duties from the late lamented Richard Hickox. I think it would be fair to say that the first two discs of the string concertos (review) and large-scale choral/orchestral works (review) have been very well received. Given my admiration for both Chandos and the conductor I am in something of a quandary as to why I find this disc to be a rare but palpable miss. Nothing that Chandos produce could ever be described as poor and there is much beauty and interest to be found here but simply put, with one possible exception, you will find finer more convincing performances of all the repertoire offered here, better recorded, elsewhere.
Even the programming of the disc contents has the feel of ‘filling in gaps’ rather than a coherent logical programme. Yes three of the four works are “early” and Brigg Fair is a mature masterpiece but there is a definite sense that the Chandos planners have looked back through their catalogue to see what is missing. One presumes that Hickox chose not to revisit Paris and Brigg Fair initially because he had already recorded them to considerable acclaim in Bournemouth for EMI (review). Obviously, Davis was not similarly concerned with duplication since those same two works appear on his disc of Delius he recorded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra as part of his survey of English Music for Warner about a decade ago (review). My preliminary listen to the disc left me curiously dissatisfied in a way I was not expecting. The Chandos engineering is solidly good but without the combination of detail yet power which so marked out a disc of theirs I recently reviewed of Suk orchestral works (review). A major problem is that the orchestra sound underwhelmed. Dynamics are rarely pushed to either extreme. So fine are the players that there is much to enjoy in the sheer beauty of the woodwind playing especially but that is not enough to dispel an air of the perfunctory. Timings are never a good guide to a performance’s essence but they do tell part of the story here. Especially since we have another Davis performance to compare and contrast.
In Brigg Fair Davis shaves three quarters of a minute off his earlier version. To be honest that is not that much but it signposts curious decisions within the score. As a simple for instance; after the misty dawn opening Delius presents the folksong Brigg Fair in the Grainger harmonisation three times by the oboe - stunningly lovely playing here but equalled by Hickox’s Bournemouth player - the flute and then the violins. In each instance, when the melody ascends to a high F towards the end of the melodic phrase Delius marks a pause. Davis in the new recording observes this for the oboe statement only and indeed pushes through the phrase in the 2nd and 3rd occurrences. In his earlier recording Davis – rightly I am certain – treats the pause more as an extended tenuto. Delius utilises a big orchestra in both of the main orchestral works; triple wind and six horns but it rarely sounds as though the orchestra is playing with real heft. The horns seem particularly guilty of this and given the athletic nature of much of the writing is comes as a major disappointment. Delius - or perhaps his editor - is very meticulous with the layering of dynamics within any given passage – this performance generalises and moderates these effects so that we do get an overall sense of loud or soft but with none of the poise or magic that lifts routine Delius into the exceptional.
The Piano Concerto fares best by some considerable distance in performance terms but you have to be a Delius die-hard to make an argument for it being anything but a curio. The interest here is that we are offered the original three movement version as opposed to the nominally standard one movement revised version with the piano writing ‘souped up’ for piano virtuosi by Busoni pupil Theodor Szántó. If this new recording were a premiere it would have Delius collectors snapping it up regardless of any other reservations. However, the palm of primacy goes to Piers Lane on Hyperion (review). Without doubt Howard Shelley is a remarkable musician and pianist who is able to bring technique, musicality and conviction to spare to a concerto which by definition is unfamiliar. It’s a fine performance but no better than Lane – whose recording in Ulster I prefer for the extra bite the engineers find – but at the end of the day it remains a peripheral work. In Paris we hear the voice of the true Delius albeit in fledgling form. The concerto is too consciously a tribute to Delius’ great friend Grieg and an effort to exploit the market for big gestured Romantic concerti. I do think there is a strong argument for considering the earlier version as definitive but my guess is that the mature Delius ultimately realised that in any form this concerto was a musical dead-end so he moved on to other more typical works.
The earliest work on the disc is the 1889 Idylle de Printemps which liner-note writer Andrew Burn rightly points out is also very much in the thrall of Grieg. There are only two other comparative versions in the catalogue. David Lloyd-Jones is on Naxos (8.505077) with the English Northern Philharmonia (the orchestra of Opera North). It was that team that gave the first performance in 1995 and recorded it around the same time. Mark Elder recorded it with the Hallé for the orchestra’s own label (review) in 2011. If Davis is quicker in Brigg Fair he is slower here; 10:17 to Lloyd-Jones’ 8:00 and Elder’s 10:45. The extra urgency that might imply is actually exactly what you get. For sure the benevolent influence of Grieg remains but with Lloyd-Jones you get an exultant young man’s music – this is Spring after all with everything that implies. Just listen to the surging climax of the committed Opera North players and compare it to their somewhat laboured Scottish counterparts – there is no comparison. The Naxos programme is more logical and interesting to boot.
Which leaves us with Paris. This work carries two extra sub-titles; A Nocturne (Song of a Great City). Again Delius uses a large orchestra and it is the score in which he most apes the style – if not sound – of the Straussian tone poems. But this ‘night-time in Paris’ is not some dream reverie or impressionist water-colour. This is the hedonistic, bawdy passionate environment where the artistic principles of Delius were forged and indeed the seed of his terminal illness sown. The recent documentary on Delius, in seeking to balance the received image of the blind aesthete sitting in a wheelchair in a Summer Garden, used music from the work as a soundtrack to the kaleidoscopic life Delius lived in fin-de-siècle Paris. Apologies for fixating on timings again but here is the biggest mystery on this disc. Davis with the BBC SO took 22:30. Indeed, the twenty-two minute mark seems very much the norm for this work with Beecham (Naxos, Sony), Mackerras and Hickox hovering either side of that figure. Fredman on Naxos 8.553001 breaks the 23 minute mark and, my personal favourite, Del Mar on Unicorn (review) - coupled as it happens with and excellent version of the single movement revision of the piano concerto from Philip Fowke - goes past twenty-five minutes. Somewhere in the last ten years Davis has taken nearly four minutes off his reading. That amounts to a major re-conceiving of the work and I have to say not to the work’s advantage. The fast passages sound simply rushed instead of riotous or ribald and the framing reflective passages don’t have the stasis they must have. This is all the more surprising since Davis in the documentary mentioned above made the brilliant and insightful comment - in that instance regarding A Mass of Life - that in Delius is was important to relish the moments when time stands still – here, all too often, it sounds as if either he or the players are unwilling to risk the relish. A couple of brief for instances; either side of rehearsal letter 35 in the Universal orchestral score; the marking is Molto Lento with quarter note/crochets separated by eighth note/quaver rests with pauses over them. Davis again ignores the pauses altogether – Del Mar is supreme. Then earlier there are two separate markings of Molto Adagio (5 bars before 17 and at 18). Davis treats them as different tempi and neither case could they be considered molto adagio. Paris looks quite unlike any other Delius score – there is much more contrapuntal activity than one normally sees in his with different musical lines overlapping at times chaotically. Again, carefully dynamic layering is vital to allow the ear to be led. Either lack of time or inclination minimises these details here – comparison to Del Mar reveals playing of far greater intensity (this does not mean just louder) and a recording that allows the telling writing for horns and trombones in particular that go for all but nothing in the new Chandos disc. Another mystery, the harp and glockenspiel are strangely out of sync at the Tempo di Marcia at figure 23. Clearly the harp wants a little more time to spread the ungratefully full chords Delius writes but the glockenspiel plays on the front of the beat. How this odd Doppler effect got past all those concerned I have no idea – it sounds simply untogether. Paris is not an easy work to bring off; Delius is forever tinkering with tempo markings and passages rarely establish before they change. Perhaps Davis felt that a more fluent approach would allow this to cohere better. Currently, I am far from convinced and feel that Del Mar by embracing the episodic nature of the work and indeed revelling in the pained ecstasy that is central to all of the finest Delius makes a strength out of a potential weakness. Take the very ending, which Andrew Burn rather poetically describes as a “vermillion dawn”; it is one of the first examples of the “moments for all eternity” that Delius sought to capture in his music. Musically speaking it’s a very ordinary chord - but so carefully voiced with instruments leaving at different points in its overall length that the sense of the first flare of dawn instantly receding is ravishingly caught. For whatever reason Davis is not able to evoke such enchantment and the reading as a whole remains disappointingly earthbound.
So, a disc of great personal disappointment. There is enough fine music here that purchasers will find enjoyment but nothing here replaces or supplants existing recordings. I notice that both of the earlier releases in this mini-series were recorded in SACD but this disc is not. Certainly I would say that sonically it is good but in no way one of Chandos’s finest and yet this is the same production team who have produced so many superb Chandos discs. It strikes me as a sound very similar to that produced for the recent Debussy set which I recall received markedly different opinions regarding the sound; one person’s atmospheric is another’s recessed. Ultimately, I would be more than happy with the sound of this disc if I was more convinced by the conviction of the interpretations and the playing. I suppose it simply proves that, like the finest Olympians, even the best of teams can have an off-day and this was one of those.
Even the best of teams can have an off-day.