Beecham conducts Delius
Many collectors, I know, have been impatiently waiting for this anthology to appear on CD—the greatest recordings made in stereo by our greatest British conductor, at the peak of his career in the last few years of his life. Those who heard Beecham live will remember vividly how he could totally transform the sounds an orchestra made. I remember my first experience, a performance of Chabrier's Espana in the Royal Albert Hall during the war, and gaining the exhilarated impression that moment. Beecham's understanding and mastery of Delius showed an incandescent creativity rarely caught in the recording studio, comparable with Furtwangler in Wagner, Schumann and Beethoven, and perhaps even more remarkable in that his first performances often seemed part of the birth process of the music itself. The total spontaneity of his music-making was aided by his ability almost to mesmerize his players and lift them up on the inspiration of the moment.
It is perhaps a pity that EMI chose not to open this anthology with Brigg Fair, Delius's masterpiece among his shorter orchestral works, which is so superlatively played here. There is a feeling of complete rapture at the opening, the RPO wind elysian, the plaintive reediness of the oboe solo contrasting with the soft pliability of the flute. Everything is so perfectly balanced and when, later, th long-breathed string melody arrives, it is given a sensuous lazy somnambulance that perfectly encapsulates a warm English summer afternoon. The actual string sound here (as in the gentle syncopated dance of the third movement of the Florida Suite) has a hazy almost unfocused shimmer that is unique to Beecham and is beautifully caught by the recording engineers. One has not space to mention the many other moments of magic, but the radiant veiled strings and luminous woodwind at the opening of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, the textural delicacy of Summer Night on the River, glowing like a French painting, or the free flexibility of tempo in Summer Evening must all receive a special mention. Beecham said, with characteristic nonchalance, that he found Delius's music ''as alluring as a wayward woman, and determined to tame it. And it wasn't done easily!'' The results are so sensuously and radiantly delectable to justify the sexual metaphor—there is a communication of musical ecstasy here which shows how close Delius's pantheistic response to nature was to the human sexual experience, yet there is an innocence too and a refinement that transcend physical associations.
The CD transfers make the very most of the recordings, opening up the textures and limiting the background noise to inconsequential proportions. At piano, pianissimo and mezzo forte levels the orchestral quality is warm and lustrous, and while tuttis harden (the dynamic range is remarkably wide) and the massed violins at forte tend to thin out, one can readily adjust, for the sparkle of the upper range adds piquancy to the opening of the Sleigh Ride and increases the feeling of gaiety when ''La calinda'' appears in the Florida Suite. Max Harrison complained that the extensive annotations had not been brought up to date for the 1985 LP/tape issue, but this has now been rectified. The long, interesting joint biographical essay linking Beecham and Delius remains and now there is an additional synopsis of each piece in the order of appearance on the two discs.
As can be seen above, playing time is very generous indeed and if the forward balance of the vocal soloists remains unattractive in Songs of Sunset, this is integral to the master tape and the inclusion of this work is welcome. But with the freedom possible with CD banding, I shall spend my time with Brigg Fair and the shorter orchestral evocations, while the opening of the early (1897) Over the Hills and Far Away, which comes first, immediately demonstrates the Beecham/Delius evocation at its most poetent, even if there is some melodrama later in the work.'