Ian Lace is correct in suggesting that Christopher Palmer’s Delius - Portrait of a Cosmopolitan (Duckworth, 1976) is one of the most important books written about the composer. In it Palmer examines Delius’s achievements through the lens of his manifold influences, including landscape and culture. The sources of inspiration include American, Norwegian, German, French and English stimuli. A glance at the composer’s catalogue reveals the apparent source in the titles: Paris: Song of a Great City, Florida, Paa Vidderne, Sleigh Ride and North Country Sketches.
I do not propose giving a detailed list of which of his works are ‘English’ - some are obvious, some contentious. For example, I cannot listen to Summer Night on the River, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring or Summer Evening without imagining a Home Counties landscape. Clearly, Brigg Fair is wholly English; we know that Song of Summer was inspired by Delius’s reflection on his younger days at Flamborough Head in Yorkshire. The Tennyson setting ‘Maud’ clearly owes its genesis to English poetry. For me, In a summer Garden is also particularly English in mood - I have a special garden in mind when I hear this work - Stockton-on-the-Forest by York. It is most likely in fact that Grez-sur-Loing provided the stimulation to the composer.
The present CD offers what Danacord regard as ‘the English masterworks’.
I have to admit that the gorgeous and sumptuous Songs of Sunset is not one of my favourite Delius works. I find this music just a little bit too intense for my taste. I feel the same way about Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs much as I recognise their genius. The music seems over-bearing and hurts physically.
Songs of Sunset was largely completed in 1907; however the premiere was not until 16 June 1911 when Thomas Beecham and the Beecham Symphony Orchestra gave the work at the Queen’s Hall. The soloists were Julia Culp and Thorpe Bates supported by the Edward Mason Choir. Three years later it was performed by the Elberfeld Choir, the work's dedicatee on 7 March 1914 in Elberfeld, Germany: this was only a handful of months before the outbreak of the Great War. Ironically, Ernest Dowson’s poems major on ‘lost love’, ‘the emotions involved in separation and parting, in the loss of youth and the long shadows cast by death.’ These are all sentiments that would be intensified in the coming four years of war. The forces on this CD give a fine performance that explores the depth, the subtlety and the heartache.
Frederick Delius was a prolific song-writer however it is fair to say that his selection of English texts is somewhat sparse. It makes up a mere eleven items in Delius’s song catalogue - not including the Maud settings and A Late Lark. The ‘Three Songs’ with words by Shelley (1891) have been described by Trevor Hold as having been composed ‘in the only English tradition that he was aware of, the drawing room ballad.’ These are amongst the composer’s earliest published works. I concede that that they are ‘hackneyed’ and probably belong to the salon; nevertheless I have a soft spot for them. The orchestration by Bo Holten is wholly characteristic and lends charm to these better-than-average examples of the ballad genre. I found Henriette Bonde-Hansen had a little too much ‘Victorian quavering’ in her voice - but typically these are attractive realisations of early Delius.
I have long considered the North Country Sketches as one of my favourite Delius pieces. It is a work that has suffered from relative neglect in the recording studio. An examination of the Arkiv catalogue currently lists ten versions, four of which are Beecham re-issues; one or other of his three recordings. This compares to 17 for Sleigh Ride, 31 for the Irmelin Prelude, 36 for both Summer Night on the River and A Walk to the Paradise Garden and finally a huge 60 for the Cuckoo.
North Country Sketches is presented in four descriptive movements - ‘Autumn: The Wind soughs in the trees,’ ‘Winter Landscape’, ‘Dance’ and finally ‘The March of Spring: Woodlands Meadow and Silent Moor’. No work can be more English than this, in spite of the possible French influences in the musical language (Debussy’s La Mer). The work is largely descriptive of the Yorkshire Moors as explored by Delius as a boy living in Bradford. It is a common-place to point out that in this work the composer moves away from the ‘voluptuous’ towards the ‘austere’. However there is something of the ‘hedonist’ in the final ‘March of Spring’. It is given a wonderfully atmospheric performance by Bo Holten. This does not eclipse Beecham but it is certainly ‘up there’. Add to this the superb sound quality of this CD, and it becomes my preferred version of the modern ‘takes’.
North Country Sketches were composed just prior to the Great War in 1913/14. It received its premiere under Thomas Beecham at the Queen’s Hall.
A Late Lark was first conceived in 1924 and was completed in 1929 with the help of Delius’s amanuensis, Eric Fenby. It is a setting of W.E. Henley’s heart-achingly beautiful meditation on life, and more poignantly death. Musically, this short work is one of the most ‘pastoral’ that Delius composed: this is exemplified by the opening oboe melody and the musical representation of birdsong. Delius does not overplay this mood: there is nothing of the ‘cow-pat’ here. Lionel Carley sums up the disposition well: it is ‘in some senses a further life-affirmation by Delius, coupled with a stoic acceptance of an approaching ending’. Delius must have appreciated the line ‘My task accomplished and the long day done/My wages taken/Some late lark singing.’
If I was pushed, I would say that A Late Lark works better with a tenor: my favourite version is that by Anthony Rolfe Johnson with the RPO conducted by Eric Fenby. Nonetheless Henriette Bonde-Hansen gives a bewitching account of this beautiful work.
The first performance was given by the tenor Heddle Nash with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting a ‘small orchestra’ at the Aeolian Hall.
I have mentioned the excellent sound quality in connection with the North Country Sketches; this applies to the whole CD. The liner-notes are outstanding, provided in English only and are written by that doyen of Delius scholars Lionel Carley. There are good thumbnail sketches of Bonde-Hansen, Reuter and Holten and of the Aarhus choirs and orchestra. The texts of all the poems set are included.
The programme is excellent, with Danacord cramming in 75 minutes of music. I could argue that Song of Summer ought to have been included, but what would they have omitted? Possibly the Shelley Songs? Conversely one must not be churlish. This is an excellent selection of Fred Delius’s ‘English’ works with three of the four being definite ‘masterworks’.
Previous review: Ian Lace (August 2012 Recording of the Month)