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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Appalachia (1902) [36.56]
In a summer garden (1908) [14.17]
Over the hills and far away (1895) [13.58]
On hearing the first cuckoo in spring (1912) [7.01]
Summer night on the river (1912) [6.32]
Royal Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, 29 October 1952 (Appalachia), 27 October 1952 (Garden), 7 February 1950 (Hills) and 31 October 1956 (Cuckoo, River)

This Beecham recording of Appalachia has led a positively Protean existence over the years, originally appearing on the Columbia label in 1952 and then migrating to CBS, Philips and Sony before this further transfer to Pristine. Confusion has been further compounded by the fact that Danish baritone Eric Nørby, engaged for the recording of Delius’s Arabesk with which the work was coupled on Philips, was then credited with the brief baritone solo beginning “O honey, I am going down the river in the morning” in the closing bars of Appalachia. The recording also seems to have expanded somewhat in the meantime, taking a full half minute longer in this Pristine issue than it did on the Philips LP which I originally owned back in the 1960s. I am very grateful to Stephen Lloyd, who has helped me to disentangle these issues, and for clarifying the various recording dates given on this Pristine release (29 October 1952 was apparently the date for initial takes only, and further sessions followed); he also points out that Michael Gray in Beecham – a centenary discography dates the recording of In a summer garden to 27 October 1951 and not 1952 as stated by Pristine.

It is also clear from Stephen Lloyd’s observations that the soloist in Appalachia was not Eric Nørby (as I had always assumed) but an unnamed singer from the chorus. Whoever he was, he is totally out of style, far too pallid in tone for the Negro song. Rob Barnett, reviewing a Sony reissue of this recording, refers to the “tenor” as being “slightly mannered”, which is putting it kindly. There also appears to be some confusion about who actually originated the notion of using a soloist in these bars, and the original 1906 Breitkopf and Härtel score describes the work as containing a “closing chorus” with no mention of any soloist involved whatsoever. That score indicates Volkstümlich over the initial baritone entry; and in the final pages he combines the baritone line back into the bass stave in a manner which certainly would seem to imply that this is a choral part rather than a vocal line. Delius, of course, was notoriously remiss in the precise marking of his scores — that is why most of them are published in versions “edited by Thomas Beecham” — and happily acquiesced in Beecham’s amendments which he said clarified what he had really meant to write. The Universal score published in 1921 and reissued in miniature format in 1927 inserts a footnote at the solo entry stating that “The Soloist must be placed in the Chorus, (not beside the conductor)” which is missing from the Breitkopf edition, but which as Stephen Lloyd observes is entirely in conformity with the tradition of negro slave singing – which would also explain the placement of the line in the layout of the score. It seems fairly clear to me that the allocation of the part to a soloist may have been made at Beecham’s own request — possibly following his own performance practice — and Delius made no attempt to change it again or to delete the footnote.

Leaving those issues on one side, it is valuable to have such an excellent transfer of this recording since Appalachia was one of the major Delius works that Beecham never set down in stereo. This re-mastering is a decided improvement on previous reissues in many ways. The imitation of the sound of banjos, for example (track 1, 3.38) is far more closely integrated into the texture than was the case on the Philips LP; and throughout Beecham, as one would expect, is fully alive to the changes that Delius rings during his set of variations. The clarity of the harps at the beginning of track 7, for example, is ideal. An additional advantage of this release is that each variation is individually tracked; the Philips version, at all events as now available on Spotify, has two tracks only corresponding to the original LP sides.

Beecham similarly did not remake In a summer garden for stereo release, and the sound here is inevitably a vast improvement on his original recording for the Delius Society; I actually own a copy of those 78s. What is interesting here is to find Beecham making a very substantial rallentando at the passage leading to 4.28, at a point which marked the beginning of a new side on the 78 set. I had always assumed that this was an attempt to bring the previous side to a satisfactory conclusion before the listener had to jump up and change the record, but it seems that Beecham regarded it as an essential ingredient of the music. The break between the second and third 78 sides was far less obviously marked.

Over the hills and far away also featured on those Delius Society 78s coupled with In a summer garden but despite the atmospheric opening, which is considerably more ethereal in this 1950 performance, this early work really cries out for the space and breadth of stereo. Beecham subsequently made a new recording for EMI, included in their invaluable CD collection Beecham conducts Delius, which contains many recordings that should never be out of the catalogues; it has subsequently re-emerged on a 2007 Warner reissue. That 2-CD box also includes the Two pieces for small orchestra – On hearing the first cuckoo in spring and Summer night on the river – which Andrew Rose complains were remarkably burdened with tape hiss. I have to say that this problem never disturbed me when listening to the EMI CD transfers, or Ivan March in his review for Gramophone. Here Rose has undertaken a clean-up of the sound, and although the results are excellent this is hardly a matter which really needs to influence purchasers who already own the set in either its EMI or Warner versions. What they will need, however, are the recordings of In a summer garden and Appalachia, Delius pieces to which Beecham never returned in the stereo era.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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