Delius: Favourite Orchestral Works (CD review)

John Cameron, baritone; Maureen Forrester, contralto; Sir Thomas Beecham, Beecham Choral Society, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. EMI 50999 0 94653 2 9 (2-disc set).

There is no mistaking the music of Frederick Delius (1862-1934). He was an English pastoral impressionist who created bucolic images of quiet moods and lingering beauty. His works persist in the mind long after one hears them. True, many of his melodies can sound alike, but, then, one can say much the same of the music of Mozart or Haydn or Vivaldi or any other great composer. Listening to Delius is like floating gently down a stream in springtime, with nowhere special to go and nothing more to do than enjoy the ride. Delius's music meanders peacefully to and fro, with no intent on getting anywhere at any particular time. Lazy music? Certainly not. Let's say it's music for a lazy day, but by no means lazy in construction or execution.

At the turn of the twentieth century, hardly anybody had heard of Delius. Then British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) came to his rescue, seeing in the music of the neglected composer a source of unusual distinction and romance. Over the course of the next fifty-odd years, Beecham would champion Delius to a degree unprecedented in the musical world. When Beecham died in 1961, some people worried that Delius's music might die with him, but that hasn't been the case. This 2011 reissue from EMI of Favourite Orchestral Works, along with continued releases from Chandos, Naxos, Decca, ASV, Dutton, Unicorn, EMI, and others, demonstrates that the public still demands to hear Delius's material. It's just that no other conductor quite understands the music as well as Beecham did. The present two-disc set offers Beecham's stereo Delius recordings, and they make a pretty good case for the composer's worth.

The titles of the pieces say it all: "Over the Hills and Far Away," "On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring," "Summer Night on the River," "A Song Before Sunrise," "Brigg Fair: An English Rhapsody," "Florida Suite," "Summer Evening," "Marche-Caprice," "Dance Rhapsody No. 2," "Fennimore and Gerda--Intermezzo," "Irmelin Prelude." Even "Sleigh Ride," which sounds as though it's going to be a fast and exciting romp, turns into a placid ramble. The second disc ends with "Songs of Sunset," eight lovely vocal/choral/orchestra tracks with baritone John Cameron, contralto Maureen Forrester, and the Beecham Choral Society teaming with Beecham and his Royal Philharmonic to conclude the program in high style.

Of the many Delius recordings on the market, it is still those of Beecham that reign supreme. He imparts to the music a perfect magic, making every performance sparkle, helping the music to convey all the delicate, tranquil, sometimes vivacious atmosphere the composer intended and more.

The 1956-57 recordings, the last of many Delius recordings Beecham made in his lifetime, these in stereo, hold up nicely, continuing to impart a transparency that shames many of today's digital efforts. While this is not to say they couldn't sometimes benefit from a greater weight and range, they do sound better than they have any right to sound. The folks at EMI have released all of the recordings in the set before in various single and double-CD editions, but I believe this is the first time the company has put all of them together. At a very low price, the set makes a terrific way to start a Delius collection if one hasn't already begun one.


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