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Frederick Delius: Brigg Fair and other works
23 Sep 2011

Beecham conducts Delius

Frederick Delius counts among those many composers whose reputations rely on their orchestral efforts, but who dearly wanted to make a lasting contribution to the opera repertory.

Frederick Delius: Brigg Fair and other works

Mezzo-Soprano: Maureen Forrester, mezzo-soprano; John Cameron, baritone. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Thomas Beecham.

EMI Classics 0946532 [2CDs]

$10.94  Click to buy

Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, however, rarely gets staged — while an excerpt, “The Walk to The Paradise Garden,” often appears on classical radio station playlists.

That particular piece does not appear on the two-disc set EMI Classics calls “Delius: Favourite Orchestral Works,” but the intermezzo from Fennimore and Gerda and the Irmelin Prelude made it. Perhaps EMI doesn’t have a recording of Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the “Paradise Garden” piece, as another name for this set could have been “Beecham Conducts Delius.” And that title would have been appropriate, for Beecham conducting Delius makes for delightful listening, whereas some other conductors with less sympathy for Delius’s sound world might have served up two and a half hours of string-heavy goop.

These late 1950s recordings come from an era of analogue warmth. They sound fine today — detailed, and yet not clinically cold, as too many digital recordings can be. And Sir Thomas brings his inimitable touch to each performance, with perfect tempo choices that never drag, yet never push forward aggressively. Delius could certainly write a fine tune (the Florida Suite is full of them) but atmosphere is what he really creates — languid, sensual, nostalgic. Of course, two and a half hours of that atmosphere will be more than most people need to experience in one sitting, and disc two begins to feel repetitive — “Didn’t we hear this selection on disc one?” No, but we can be forgiven for thinking so.

The set closes with orchestral settings of poet Ernest Dowson’s Songs of Sunset, for baritone and mezzo-soprano. Dowson is most known today for some phrases that entered the 20th century consciousness, such as the line “the days of wine and roses” from the last selection, “They are not long, the weeping and the laughter.” The diction and imagery now feel dated and stilted, and there should really be some variety to the dominating mood of forlorn sentimentality. But the piece could not hope for a better performance. John Cameron and Maureen Forrester sing in the best British oratorio tradition — on the credit side, that means disciplined enunciation and plaintive tone. Others will perceive the debit side, with the readings coming off as fussy and the tone a touch too fruity.

Any music library without some Delius, however, will be lacking a choice slice of early twentieth century music-making — the polar opposite of the Second Viennese school, or at least equatorially distant, as there is no frigidity to Delius at all. Such music libraries should snap up this budget EMI set of Beecham conducting much of the composer’s best music.

Chris Mullins

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