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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) Delius in Norway Norwegian Bridal Procession (1889) [3:43] Paa Vidderne (1889-91, rev. 1892) [14:08] Two Songs from the Norwegian (1889, orchestrated 1908) [7:23]
Sleigh Ride (1887, orch. 1889) [5:36] Folkeraadet (The People’s Parliament) (1897) [25:29] On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912) [6:13] Eventyr (1915-17) [15:10]
Ann-Helen Moen (soprano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway, 15-18 April 2013. CHANDOS CHSA5131 SACD [78:32]
My major discovery on this CD is the incidental music for the play Folkeraadet (The People’s Parliament) which was composed in 1897. I should have known this music as it was previously released in 1986 on Marco Polo 8.220452 (Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra/John Hopkins), however for one thing and another I never got around to hearing it. Delius was commissioned to write this music by the playwright Gunnar Heiberg, who was one of the composer’s companions in his Paris circle of friends. The play was a ‘satirical comedy’ which explored the fraught relationship between Norway and Sweden at a time when that latter country was dominating affairs. The inclusion of the Norwegian national anthem in the score led to near riots, with shots being fired by a member of the audience. The music was withdrawn, then after a debate at the University it was decided to reinstate the score. Finally, due to continual protests and interruptions, the music was abandoned. Delius must have felt that the score was good as he used large sections of it in his Norwegian Suite. This was to remain unpublished in his lifetime.
The score was edited by Sir Thomas Beecham and Eric Fenby. It is divided up into four main sections, a Prelude followed by three ‘interludes’ with a couple of ‘melodramas’ between the interludes. The music is largely cheerful from start to finish; the final interlude with the ‘offending’ quotation from the national anthem is much more solemn than what has already transpired. This music is hardly typical of what the listener has come to expect from Delius in his more ‘mature’ years. I guess that Dvořák, Grieg and Elgar are the models here. There is nothing of In a Summer Garden or The First Cuckoo in these pages. It is an altogether enjoyable score that can be listened to with great pleasure without any reference to the plot of Heiberg’s play.
The CD opens with the Delius orchestration of Edvard Grieg’s Norwegian Bridal Procession. Delius had been invited to a village wedding party when he was in Norway in 1887. The Grieg original derives from one of his Pictures of Norwegian Life, Op.19 (1872). It is a delightful tribute to the elder composer. One again this music was not published in the composer’s lifetime.
Paa Vidderne, after Henrik Ibsen’s eponymous poem, is not a composition that I often listen to, which is a pity. The work, which bears the English title of On the Heights, is a fine tone poem that owes much to Wagner and especially Tchaikovsky in its musical sound-world. It was given its first performance in 1894; the genesis of the piece dates back to 1888 when Delius composed an ‘orchestral melodrama’ which involved the ‘declamation’ of Ibsen’s poem (heard in this form on a ClassicO CD). This was revised into an overture which was heard in 1891 and further revised in 1892. A sketch for the work had been made when Delius was on a tour of Jotunheimen, which is a mountainous region of Norway. Once again this work is not in the ‘received’ Delius style: however, there are a number of moments when the music sounds just a little like what we have come to expect. It is a fine example of a late-nineteenth century ‘symphonic poem’ and deserves more publicity that it seemingly gets. Does it conjure up a mountain landscape? That is for the listener to discern. Out of interest, there are currently only six versions of this work on disc including one by Beecham, which compares with 15 for Paris and 60 for On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.
I enjoyed the beautiful voice of Ann-Helen Moen singing two of the ‘Seven Songs from the Norwegian’ which were composed in 1889. These songs, with texts by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Henrik Ibsen, originally for voice and piano, were dedicated to Grieg’s wife, Nina. In 1908, at Granville Bantock’s request, Delius orchestrated Prinsessen (Twilight Fancies) and En Fuglevise (The Bird’s Story) for the soprano Olga Wood (Henry Wood’s first wife). They were performed at concerts in Liverpool and Birmingham. Wagner and Richard Strauss seem to be the models here rather than Norwegian folksong. I only wish that the other five had been part of Bantock’s request to the composer: they would make a stunning, major song cycle. It is some consolation that the complete cycle can be heard with supplementary orchestrations by other hands on ClassicO. Five of the songs feature on Danacord’s and Bo Holten’s Delius Norwegian Masterworks anthology.
Little need be said about the delightful Sleigh Ride. This has long been a favourite of mine. It conjures up as no other music does - except perhaps Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride - the joy of this mode of travel on a cold, frosty winter’s day. Originally composed for piano solo in 1887, it was orchestrated two years later. It would become one of the Three Small Tone Poems. Sleigh Ride (also known as Winter’s Night) had to wait until 1946 for its first orchestral performance.
My heart has always placed the ‘location’ of Delius’s best-known work somewhere in the Home Counties on a hot, sultry, late spring day. My head tells me that the location is more likely to be Trolhaugen in Norway, as the composer introduces the beautiful tune ‘In Ola Dal’ (‘In Ola Valley’) which was discerned by Percy Grainger. The tune also features in Grieg’s 19 Norwegian Folksongs, Op. 66. My benchmark recording is not Sir Thomas Beecham but Anthony Collins’ 1953 version on Decca (reviewreview). I am looking for a ‘ravishing’ sound that is to a certain extent unfocused, but avoids ‘rhythmic monotony’ in its formal structure. The First Cuckoo was composed in 1912 and was published the following year with its companion piece Summer Night on the River. Does the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis deliver on this piece? I am not sure that it does. It is beautifully played, but somehow he just does not get the mood right. I am sure that others will disagree.
The final work on this adventurous CD exploring Delius’ ‘Norwegian Legacy’ is the eccentric, but ultimately beautiful ‘ballad’ Eventyr. The translation of this title is ‘Tales of Adventure’. The music had its inspiration in the edition by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812-1885) of Norwegian folk-tales and legends. The earliest sketches date from 1915. Delius denied that any particular story was implied: it has been suggested that the nature of the piece suggests that there may well be a ‘hidden’ programme lurking in these pages. There is a pastoral opening section which may portray ‘the warm-hearted superstitious country folk’ before the music moves on to more sinister things such as trolls, pixies and giants. There is a weird moment when an off-stage male chorus make two menacing cries. I agree with the liner-notes that this ‘eerie cry out of the night’ is among the strangest and most original moments in all orchestral music? This is a masterpiece and it is a pity that it does not seem to be held in high regard. Eventyr (Once upon a time) was dedicated to Sir Henry Wood, and it was duly premiered on 11 January 1919.
I cannot find fault with this CD. The liner-notes by Andrew Burn are excellent, the quality of the sound reproduction is ideal and the enthusiasm and dedication of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Sir Andrew Davis is palpable - in spite of my misgivings over the First Cuckoo. Above all, this programme has been lovingly chosen by Chandos: it is a superb selection that showcases the deep affection Delius had for Norway, the composer’s absorption of its culture, and finally his friendship with Edvard Grieg.