RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) American Masterworks
Koanga - excerpts from the opera (1895-97) (Palmyra's aria [3:35]; Martinez introduces Koanga [4:54]; La Calinda [3:13]; Koanga's invocation [4:50]) [16:32]
Appalachia, Variations on an old Slave Song with final chorus (1896; 1902-03) [36:29]
Sea Drift for Baritone Solo, Mixed Chorus and Orchestra (1903-04) - Words by Walt Whitman [25:26]
Henriette Bonde-Hansen (soprano) (Palmyra); Johan Reuter (baritone) (Koanga); Simon Duus (baritone) (Martinez, Perez); Aarhus Cathedral Choir and Aarhus Symphony Orchestra Choir; Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/Bo Holten
rec. Symfonisk Sal Aarhus, Denmark, 11 October 2011, 24-25 May, 18-22 June 2012
DANACORD DACOCD 732 [78:26]
Following hard on the heels of Sir Andrew Davis’s fine 2010 Chandos recording (CHSA5088) of Delius’s Appalachia, comes another captivating performance from Bo Holten in his much acclaimed Delius series for Danacord (see end of review). It is a glorious and very affecting, so much so that tears often stood in my eyes especially through its choral finale.
Just to repeat what I have written previously about this evocative work: ‘In his preface to the score 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.”
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. His mind dwelt on music not oranges. He would sit smoking on sultry nights engrossed in listening to the complex harmonies of the singing of black farm labourers in the distance. Many Delians also believe that he fell in love, at that time, with a black girl with whom he had a child. Although the romance did not end well, Delius never forgot it. Tasmin Little has even suggested that this girl was the love of his life. It is thought by some that the emotional turbulence 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 little more than commodities to be bought and sold, families being split up in the process and literally ‘sold down the river’. Delius’s music, especially in that heart-rending concluding song, is full of pathos and pity for their predicament.
Bo Holten gives a beautifully-shaped and sensitive reading of Appalachia commencing with a wondrous scene-setting as the brass echo back and forth across the sound-stage and misty strings, horns and harp shape a sultry landscape along the river. The 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. Holten’s sensitivity to them all never slackens and how instinctively and subtly his Aarhus players respond. There is a waltz and marches and episodes of heartfelt delicacy and exquisitely shaded nature-painting. The climax is that magnificent and heart-rending final variation for chorus and orchestra and the slave’s reassurance 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.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about this performance of Sea Drift. The words by Walt Whitman, centre on a young boy’s sudden awareness of ‘the harsh realities of life and love’ as he witnesses the sundering of the love of two sea-birds when the she-bird fails to return to her nest and the male is left to mourn endlessly. Holten’s portrait of the seas off Long Island shines and shimmers in sympathy with the tragedy unfolding on the beach. The Aarhus singers respond likewise, ecstatic in their first “Shine! shine! shine!” chorus as the sea birds bask in the sun together, through to the hopeful “Blow, blow, blow sea-winds … blow my mate to me” and finally, hopelessly, to - “… no more, no more with me!” The blending of their voices with that of the baritone soloist voicing the growing despair of the male-bird, is particularly poignant. The weakness here is the soloist Johan Reuter who in his reach for technical competence, and just once or twice less than perfect English, lacks just enough expressiveness to really convince about the male bird’s growing despondency and anguish.
Of more interest to committed Delians is the excerpt from Delius’s early opera, Koanga. This covers the action of the scene in which Koanga, a negro slave who was formerly an African chieftain, is to marry his sweetheart Palmyra. She is abducted by the plantation’s overseer, Perez who covets her. In his wrath and anguish Koanga strikes Martinez the plantation owner. This is a hanging offence and Koanga has to escape into the forest invoking the vengeance of his voodoo gods. Henriette Bonde-Hansen radiantly sings Palmyra’s aria as she anticipates her imminent nuptials and later at her immediate pre-wedding celebration as she sings and dances to one of Delius’s most famous melodies, ‘La Calinda’, as arranged by Bo Holten. Reuter is more impressive as Koanga, dignified and wrathfully vengeful.
Another fine addition to Holten’s growing Delius discography. Holten’s Appalachia is glorious but I have some minor reservations about Sea Drift.
Another fine addition to Holten’s growing Delius discography. His Appalachia is glorious but I have some minor reservations about Sea Drift.
Bo Holten’s Delius series for Danacord:
DACOCD 536 Danish Masterworks
DACOCD 592 Norwegian Masterworks
DACOCD 721 English Masterworks
DACOCD 728 French Masterworks
DACOCD 717 Rare historic recordings
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