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For Definitive Delius, It’s Still Beecham

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

The music of Frederick Delius is seldom performed, even in his native England. It has, however, been exhaustively recorded, most notably by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, his benefactor and official spokesman from the turn of the century to Beecham’s death in 1961.

What relatively little acclaim Delius achieved in the wider world before his death in 1934 was through such small, exquisite (and mercilessly joshed for their titles) tone poems as “Summer Night on the River” and “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring.”

Delius’ music is forever swooning, moving in dreamy arcs, murmuring sweetly. Its structures are outwardly loose, rhapsodic being the operative adjective. Climaxes are rare, soft endings a way of life. He was a great melodist--if you like slow, chromatic melodies that exude a sort of lazy, hazy eroticism. If you require tension of your art, look elsewhere.

These thoughts are inspired by a sudden gentle explosion of recorded Delius, including rare encounters with his most ambitious creation, “A Mass of Life” (1908), a German-language setting of passages from Nietzsche’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” dealing with love and nature.

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The “Mass” requires a huge choral-orchestral apparatus and a first-rate solo quartet, with a particularly demanding part for the baritone, who is Nietzsche’s and Delius’ personal spokesman.

“A Mass of Life” may be large, even occasionally loud. For the most part, however, it’s typically Delian: a series of small, soft, gorgeously curvaceous melodies and a good deal of Weltschmerzy sighing.

For the first time, two recordings of “A Mass of Life” are on the market simultaneously. They are, in fact, only its second and third recorded appearances, their lone predecessor, Beecham’s from the early 1950s, having not yet been transferred to CD.

The preferred current version is from a 1971 London broadcast (Intaglio 702, two CDs), in clear, spacious sonics, with the late Norman del Mar conducting the BBC Symphony and Choral Society, and strong soloists, with John Shirley-Quirk a virile baritone protagonist and Kiri Te Kanawa at her soaring, youthful best.

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The fillup is one of Delius’ least known (even among the faithful) products, his Requiem: again, nothing liturgical, rather a gentle, pantheistically inspired tribute to friends fallen in the First World War.

Warning: Intaglio provides no vocal texts, only skimpy notes.

The other “Mass of Life” recording is a reissue from 1972 (EMI 64218, two CDs). The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir are conducted by the late Sir Charles Groves, whose understated approach might at first seem ideal but ultimately lacks the underlying rhythmic pulse that energizes the best, seemingly most relaxed Delius performances. And Groves’ solo quartet isn’t nearly as polished as Intaglio’s.

EMI’s accompanying material, particularly the yearning-burning “Songs of Sunset,” offers superior vocalism from Janet Baker and Shirley-Quirk. But here too Groves’ leadership is deficient in the subtle rhythmic push that keeps Delius from vaporizing altogether.

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The real thing returns in a pair of Beecham reissues, with his ever-responsive Royal Philharmonic: a program highlighted by “Sea Drift,” a gloriously sentimental Walt Whitman setting, and the less elevated--but lovable--incidental music to “Hassan” (Sony Masterworks Portrait 47680, mid-price).

The other Beecham reissue centers on the exquisitely schmaltzy Violin Concerto, played with fetching beauty of tone and dynamic mastery by Jean Pougnet (EMI 64054, mid-price). It is coupled with “Song of the High Hills,” for chorus and orchestra, bearing such titles as “The wide far distance--The Great Solitude.” You get the idea.

All that’s needed now to complete your representative Delius collection is EMI set 47509 (two CDs), which contains the short pieces that constitute a haven from all the decisiveness, heroism, lofty sentiments, structural clarity and related impedimenta of the nominal masterpieces of music: such gentle beauties as “Summer Night,” “Cuckoo,” “Brigg Fair,” the prelude to “Irmelin,” the “Fennimore and Gerda” intermezzo. Sigh. . . .


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