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ClassicsOnline Home » DELIUS: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (Beecham) (1927-1936)
"Dear Thomas, I am quite delighted with your last record which has just been sent to me
the three best records of my work are your Cuckoo, Summernight & Walk to the Paradise Garden
So wrote Frederick Delius to Sir Thomas Beecham in March 1929. In fact those three discs comprised the conductors total Delius output at that moment: Sea Drift had been attempted in November 1928 and Brigg Fair begun, but Beecham had not allowed the choral works publication; Brigg Fair had fared better but Beecham was ultimately unhappy with one of the sides and it would be July 1929 before he was able to make a fresh attempt on it. Meanwhile, his record of The Walk to the Paradise Garden made many converts to Deliuss music; on the night the composer died, 10th June 1934, the BBC played it to follow their announcement of his passing. At his home at Grez-sur-Loing in France, Deliuss widow Jelka heard the broadcast with Eric Fenby (190697), his amanuensis since 1928. Fenby wrote later:
as I listened to that music, I saw the world of music as he entered it, and the world of music, richer now by far through his legacy of loveliness, as he had left it.
The orchestra which Beecham conducted on the disc was the ensemble of freelancers that played for the concerts of the Royal Philharmonic Society season. Léon Goossens was prominent as first oboe, and when in 1932 Beecham formed his brilliant London Philharmonic Orchestra Goossens became one of his star players. As well as dominating the London concert scene Sir Thomas and his new orchestra embarked on an ambitious recording programme. Between 1933 and 1940 over 200 78s were issued (mainly on the Columbia label but some on HMV) including the three Society volumes devoted to Deliuss music. In conjunction with his recording producer Walter Legge, who had helped develop the concept of Society sets, Beecham was careful to plan the making of the Delius volumes at two yearly intervals (1934, 1936 and 1938) in order to allow a space between their release to the public; this made good commercial sense since the seven discs that each volume comprised were not obtainable separately but had to be purchased together in a special album.
Sea Drift was the highlight of the second volume. During the previous decade Beecham had used the English baritones Roy Henderson or Dennis Noble in this work (Noble, for instance, had sung it at Beechams Delius Festival in London in 1929) but for the recording he summoned the Australian baritone John Brownlee (190169). Brownlee had achieved distinction in the Mozart operas during the opening season of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1934, and Beecham had engaged him the following year for the title-role in Deliuss opera Koanga when he revived it at Covent Garden. Brownlee was a hit as the African prince, and his manly and virile tones are certainly equal to the climaxes in Sea Drift. It was unlikely to have been him, one feels, to whom Beecham once during a concert apparently leaned over after the line in Sea Drift, and I singing uselessly all the night ... to murmur to his soloist, How true, my boy, how true.
The London Select Choir had sung Sea Drift under Beechams baton at the 1929 Festival; their tone is clear and strong too, but an equally great triumph perhaps belongs to Walter Legge, whose success in bringing off a difficult studio recording involving substantial choral and orchestral forces, is little short of remarkable. Up to that point, choral recording had always been regarded as an extremely chancy business and Legges sole previous attempt had been made under difficult conditions at the Leeds Festival in 1934. Though he had some success on that occasion in recording what were in effect Beechams final concert rehearsals, the achievement was patchy and only a few discs were considered worth publishing.
The remaining works in volume 2, all orchestral, were achieved in the ideal recording conditions of Studio No. 1 at Abbey Road in St Johns Wood, London. This had been opened in 1931, and was purpose-built; here Beecham and Legge could achieve their best results (as indeed they did in the widest possible range of composers besides Delius). By 1936 the LPO was well established and Beecham was obtaining practically unsurpassable results from it. That was the year he gave a performance of Deliuss A Mass of Life which one of his players, Thomas Russell (later to be managing director of the LPO) described as one of the most living presentations of any music in my experience, even with Beecham
I do not expect to hear a performance of the same quality again.
The Delius recordings made in 1936 recall for us some of this quality. Although Paul Beard was no longer the orchestras leader (his successor was David McCallum from The Scottish Orchestra) the woodwind principals of Geoffrey Gilbert, Léon Goossens, Reginald Kell and John Alexandra imparted a lustre and individuality to the playing which no other London orchestra could match. This was particularly vital in Deliuss music, especially in so evocative a score as In a Summer Garden in which, so far as Beecham was concerned, could be found the quintessence of Delius. Here he could demand the utmost delicacy of nuance from his players and achieve it, apparently effortlessly. Goossenss oboe playing in this work and in the second of the two interludes which comprise the so-called Intermezzo from Fennimore and Gerda, goes a long way to explain why Beechams Delius Society records created what amounted practically to a cult for the music in the 1930s.
The Fennimore and Gerda item, as well as being special for its performance qualities, is unusual in another way: the studio recording reproduced here was its actual first performance. With Deliuss approval, Eric Fenby had linked together the preludes of Scenes 10 and 11 and added some bars from the end of the opera to make a short concert piece. The composer never heard it and it was not published until 1945, but it is entirely likely that Fenby, who worked briefly for Beecham after completing his book Delius as I knew him in 1936, drew it to the conductors attention. And possibly Beecham seized on it not only as a novelty for the Delius Society volumes, but because it enabled him
to include something from the one score which Delius had dedicated to him. Although he had conducted a portion of Fennimore and Gerda at his 1929 festival, he had no enthusiasm for the opera as a whole.
The fantasy-overture Over the Hills and Far Away, albeit an early and immature work, was nevertheless a Beecham favourite to the extent that he chose it with some regularity to play at concerts and recorded it altogether three times. He described it as an actively
and at times a vigorously happy sort of piece, reflecting that with Delius, whereas serene contentment or lively impulse informed most of his music, the two moods rarely coincided in the same piece.
As a producer of CD reissues, David Lennicks work in this field grew directly from his own needs as a broadcaster specialising in vintage material and the need to make it listenable while being transmitted through equalisers, compressors and the inherent limitations of AM radio. Equally at home in the classical, pop, jazz and nostalgia fields, Lennick describes himself as exercising as much control as possible on the final product, in conjunction with CEDAR noise reduction applied by Graham Newton in Toronto. As both broadcaster and re-issue producer, he relies on his own extensive collection as well as those made available to him by private collectors, the University of Toronto, the International Piano Archives at Maryland, Syracuse University and others.
The Delius Society records were issued in manual sequence when they first appeared in Great Britain, as well as on their first American pressings. A problem in Sea Drift thus was not noticed until American Columbia re-pressed the sides for automatic turntables in 1940: Side 5, the brief a cappella passage, is sung a half-tone flat. Listeners playing the records manually might not have caught the problem, but it was immediately audible in automatic play. American Columbia re-dubbed the side and corrected the pitch, but used an off-center pressing as its source, thus introducing a bad wow into all later pressings. A combination of quiet American and the best English pressings was used for these transfers to CD.
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DELIUS: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (Beecham) (1927...