Fair -- An English Rhapsody. Dance Rhapsody No. 2.
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring. Summer Night on the River. A
Song before Sunrise. Intermezzo from Fennimore and Gerda. Prelude
to Irmelin. Sleighride. Summer Evening. Daybreak - Dance from Florida Suite.
I have to confess that, with the exception of Appalachia, Brigg Fair, and the Double Concerto, Delius the composer mostly annoys me. I have found him typical of fin de si╦cle artists, heavy on the perfume and with a soft-nougat-center notion of beauty. Thank God Modernism replaced it. Though Delius superficially resembles Debussy, Debussy hones by far a sharper edge. Delius, to paraphrase Ruskin, throws a pot of notes at a page. Debussy finds the right note.
On the other hand, when I express this to Delius enthusiasts, they always come back with, "Have you heard Beecham?" I hadn't, but I had indeed heard Barbirolli's Brigg Fair and Appalachia, two of my Delius favorites and probably not a coincidence that Barbirolli conducted them. So I was willing to admit that the conductor very likely made a difference in Delius performance.
I'm ashamed to admit it: Beecham completely wins me over. Works that sounded slack ("On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring" from the Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, for example) now strike me as exquisitely poetic. And it doesn't all sound the same. I suspect that Delius causes more trouble for people familiar with the conventions of classical music than for those who "just listen." I don't mean any disparagement of Delius or "just listeners," but the correlation strikes me as true, since music is very largely an art of convention. Delius doesn't work the same way as Beethoven or Brahms, for example, or for those other composers largely responsible for the conventions of classical music. Furthermore, he knew it and was proud of it. Mostly self-taught (at least as far as his own idiom went), he tended to think that the kind of coherence achieved in, say, Brahms, was "professorial" and "academic" (both synonyms for "dead"). As antithetical as that kind of coherence was to his artistic personality, however, he knew quite well that his pieces needed to hang together. The longer works (not counting those with texts, like Mass of Life) tend to be variations. The shorter works move from one section to another mostly as extended song forms or even with a kind of "psychological" coherence, as in Ives. That is, it seems right, even though you can't find the transition on the page. Because of the lack of usual markers, Delius's music is paradoxically harder for most conductors than Beethoven's. You really do have to be with him.
Brigg Fair demonstrates this quite well. It presents a set of variations on the great folk song collected (and beautifully arranged) by Delius's friend Percy Grainger. However, there's a pretty little intro to the piece which, by all the usual tests, has nothing to do with the rest. In unsympathetic hands, it comes across as a waste-of-time, general-purpose preface to just about any slow piece. Somehow, Beecham makes the song grow out of these opening measures and thus raises them above the merely decorative. Serving a function, they become beautiful.
Ned Rorem once observed that most composers write either fast or slow music. That is, their slow music is really fast music at a slower tempo, or their fast music is really slow music sped up. Wagner comes to mind as a fellow who never wrote a truly fast piece, Delius as well. The Dance Rhapsody No. 2 can come across as rhythmically clunky - sort of like Falstaff dancing - mainly because it cavorts to a light rhythm with too many instruments and at too slow a tempo. Beecham puts it through a miracle regimen. The music bounces like a bubble, due in no small part to, for once, a lightness in the orchestral background to the wind solos. In this performance, one can easily hear the adumbrations of Vaughan Williams's Lark Ascending.
As often as I've listened to "On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring," I must say that Beecham's reading stands out in its subtlety and, above all, in its forward pulse. The song of the cuckoo is never pushed as such, and the orchestra seems to float along the current of the music. Yet it's probably the most rapt account I've heard, precisely because it doesn't drown in the weight of self-importance. The same holds true for its companion piece, "Summer Night on the River." Here, one can also praise the precision of attack of the Royal Philharmonic (listen to the pizzicato strings, for example) in music that can easily wallow. Beecham allows the music to sing with delicate charm.
A Song Before Sunrise is notable in Beecham's hands for the beautiful color shifts as well as, again, for the ever-present forward pulse. The same holds true for the Fennimore and Gerda intermezzo and the Irmelin prelude (both with outstanding wind soloists). I have no idea how Beecham achieves this movement and why so few other conductors have a clue. It's a lesson in musical intensity and relaxation. Once you hear Beecham, Delius seems "natural," rather than knotty or merely eccentric.
I had never heard Sleighride before this recording. It's a bit out of Delius's usual line. You shouldn't expect Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, but you do get an opening somewhat reminiscent of Sullivan, of all people. The dainty dance of the opening soon gets replaced with a slow, contemplative middle section, but even this sounds unusual for Deliusless chromatic, for one thing, more folk-like, although the folk in question is Grieg.
I'm not enough of a Delius scholar to know why or to what extent Beecham revised Summer Evening or the Florida Suite's "DaybreakDance." It does seem to me, however, that Summer Evening is the most conventional performance on the program, despite the superb playing from the Royal Phil. On the other hand, the excerpt from the Florida Suite has the grace and power of the Siegfried-Idyl. However, the trick in both is to build, maintain, and fall back from the long musical spans that make up both these works. One seldom finds this kind of art practiced since the war, which may be one reason why there are so few new Bruckner conductors about. Beecham, needless to say, brings off the piece to a fare-thee-well in just such a way. This is probably my favorite track on the CD.
Delius remains for me a shadowy figure, once the CD ends. While I'm listening to Beecham and his band, however, I'm transported. I suppose that's one definition of "Great Recordings of the Century," to which series this disc belongs, as does Beecham's magnificent Bizet (the Symphony in C and Carmen). However, they should bring out Beecham's Haydn and Mozart as well, too long unavailable except through semi-devious means.
My one complaint with the album concerns the liner notes which treat Delius as an adjunct to Beecham, with next to nothing on the music, probably because composers no longer matter as much as performers. Right now that may be the case, but I don't have to like it.
S.G.S. (July 2001)