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Symphonies 1, 2, 3

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Frederick DELIUS ( 1862-1934)
Orchestral Music arranged for two pianos - Volume 2
Paris - the Song of a Great City (arr. Percy Grainger) (1899) [22:29]
Eventyr (Once Upon a Time) (arr. Benjamin Dale) (1917) [18:50]
Fantastic Dance (arr. Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson) (1931) [3:30]
Summer Night on the River (arr. Philip Heseltine) (1911-12) [5:27]
Song of the High Hills (arr. Percy Grainger) (1911) [29:17]
Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi (pianos)
rec. Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham, England, 15-16 September 2011
SOMM SOMMCD 0129 [79:35]

I gave a warm welcome to Volume 1 of this survey by these same artists. I’m pleased to say that, if anything Volume 2 is better still. Given that it follows the same format with the same artists in the same venue with the same technical team it should be the equal at least of the earlier disc. The fact that I consider it better is simply down to the repertoire recorded which includes two of Delius’s most important and characteristic scores: Paris and Song of the High Hills. Volume 2 - which runs less than thirty seconds shy of eighty minutes - was recorded just five months after Volume 1. Clearly pianists Callaghan and Takenouchi were immersing themselves in the Delian idiom at this time. This would seem to be one of the main reasons both discs ‘work’. Regardless of the medium - and let’s be honest Delius does not work at its absolute best stripped of its orchestral garb and varied tonal palette - these are fine performances of often elusive music.
Valuable too to pay homage to the dedicated transcribers, three of whom at least were vital in establishing Delius as a major international composer. None more so than Julius Buths who arranged the first work here: Paris - the Song of a Great City. Buths is probably best known for his championing of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius - rescuing it from the car-crash of Richter’s Birmingham premiere. He had enough belief in the composer to midwife the work giving it its German and European premiere on 19 December 1901 in Düsseldorf. At the second performance in 1902 such was the applause that Elgar was called to the stage twenty times. This was the performance that elicited Richard Strauss’s famous quote “I drink to the success and welfare of the first English progressive musician, Meister Elgar”.Delius was Buths’ other great British composer passion - he was the soloist in the first performance of the Piano Concerto in 1904 and conducted just the second performance of Appalachia in 1905. Paris is one of Delius’ first major scores - he was in his late thirties by the time it was written but what strikes one is the muscular confidence of the writing. For sure the influence of Strauss is at its least digested but as a picture of a great city at night it remains both compelling and effective. There is a certain episodic nature to it work but Callaghan and Takenouchi are very good indeed at keeping the large - sometimes sprawling - structure together. I particularly like the murky opening, a kind of musical mist on the Seine from which the city emerges.
As I mentioned in my earlier review, the arranger’s dilemma here is quite how to transcribe these very detailed and complex works. To include “everything” takes it out of the realm of playability for most of the (then) target public but to make it simply pianistic is to risk losing the essence of Delius. To me this can be expressed as a sense of fluidity and flow within a strongly defined structure. Too often Delius can be allowed to wallow in its own narcissistic beauty - to its major detriment. Buths includes as much as possible but the players here overcome those technical hurdles with ease. The second piece Eventyr,feels like a smaller work even though it runs to a substantial eighteen minutes. Its arranger Benjamin Dale was a virtuoso composer for the keyboard so it should not come as any surprise what an accomplished transcription he made. The ‘novelty’ in this work is the “wild shout” of “Hei” which the orchestral score directs as being made by “20 men’s voices (invisible)” - it’s one of those effects which seems like a good idea but ends up as a faintly embarrassed “gentleman’s excuse me” so its absence in the transcription is not sorely felt. It does however bring it home just how demanding it is to take Delius from the orchestral score. This work abounds in extremes of dynamic and tempo (the shout is marked ffff) so again praise is due to arranger and performers for so successfully bridging the gap between the genres.
Interesting to note that the third work is a transcription by two working pianists. It is the only score I do not have to hand in the original orchestral version. It sounds like duettists Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson had chosen to make this transcription more of an overtly pianistic display than the other arrangers here. Not that that is a bad thing for it sounds lovely. However, there is a striking sense that more of the textures are filled with pianistic filigree than true Delian weave. Together with the languidly beautiful Summer Night on the River arranged by Philip Heseltine/Peter Warlock these two relative miniatures provide a beautiful respite before the final assault on the Grainger-arranged Song of the High Hills.
Increasingly this seems to me to be one of Delius’ greatest and most significant works. It embodies so much of his essence both musically and spiritually. At just a few seconds shy of thirty minutes of continuous music it is his largest single span of orchestral music. Grainger’s achievement is to make the transcription as convincing as he does and again it is served superbly here. Callaghan and Takenouchi really do give an utterly convincing account. Even so, such is the work’s scale, aspiration and conception that anything less than the full orchestral presentation must be doomed to - an albeit glorious - failure. If one were trying to persuade someone of Delius’s greatness and chose this score as an exemplar the simple fact is you would never turn to this transcription before the original.
Therein lies the ‘problem’ for this disc, much as it did for volume 1. By definition this is a specialist CD. For that reason we must be extremely grateful to the performers and to Somm for the time and effort lavished on it. As before, I find Martin Lee-Browne’s notes verging on the pointless with little consistency in the manner in which the information he does give is presented. The interest in this disc for 99% of those collecting it will be the two piano format. Telling us little or nothing about the arrangers or discussing the manner [and success] of their transcriptions is an opportunity missed. When Lee-Browne writes apropos the final work “In my view, the moment about a third of the way through, when the chorus enters unaccompanied and ppp is one of the most magical in all music” it seems rather perverse given that we are given a version with no chorus. All this does is highlight what is lacking not what has been achieved.
Somm’s regular production team have produced a very good sound-picture. I like the way the two pianos sit clearly differentiated in the stereo spread. This allows you to hear how skilfully the arrangers have divided the musical spoils - it really does differ from arranger to arranger. Again, as with volume 1 I did wonder if the Steinway Model ‘D’ pianos as recorded in this acoustic didn’t just harden fractionally at the most powerful climaxes. For some reason I have it in my mind’s ear that a mellower piano tone might be even more appropriate. There is just one little performing quirk; the players occasionally choose to spread unison chords in a way that prevents total unanimity of attack. It happens often enough to clearly be a performing choice rather than an ensemble slip. Given the choice I would have preferred something with absolutely precise articulation but that is a tiny caveat for an excellent disc.
This is a magnificent recital of works that still struggle to be recognised as the masterpieces I believe them to be.
Nick Barnard

Previous review: Ian Lace