2012 was the Sesquicentennial of the birth of Delius. And the various "honorary reissues" have yielded a cachet of gems with this box - a slimline economical repackaging of all 7 Unicorn/Kanchana volumes of THE DELIUS COLLECTION. Individually, these had been available at either full or mid-price, and were sometimes difficult to track down.
Central to this collection are the recordings, as accompanist and conductor, of Dr. Eric Fenby, "amanuensis" to the blind and paralyzed Delius (i.e., Fenby helped Delius to dictate and complete his final works). The other conductors are Norman Del Mar and Vernon Handley. True, in the past there was some grumbling that the orchestral "Fenby Legacy" recordings were not grouped together within the 7 volumes, as they were on the original 1980s double LP and CD sets. This was logical enough for the LPs, but it resulted in 2 CDs, each with over half an hour of "space." Still, Delius did not consciously compose his individual works to be heard in any kind of strict succession. (Indeed, Delian "wine" is such heady stuff that this writer has often found it best, between hearings of Delian works, to "clear the palate" with some Handel or Haydn.)
To pendantically go through each of the 7 volumes with "spot-checking" critique, when the music itself screams for a hearing, seems unwarranted. Individual listeners must explore this internal landscape - no, this WORLD - themselves. (And what a journey they have before them.) After all, the "average" Delian (if there is such a person !) hardly needs yet another set of unqualified opinions for "guidance." Still, a few pointers might not be out of order. So we shall group these works by performer, not by CD volume.
First, the volume level of these transfers is a bit "hotter" or higher than before. This is all to the good : especially in the original "Fenby Legacy" CDs, the volume was far too low.
No doubt, it is unfair - but inevitable - to compare the conducting of Del Mar, Handley and Fenby with that of Sir Thomas Beecham. In terms of pacing and phrasing, Beecham's is a more "interventionist" narrative thrust, resulting in greater episodic variety and contrast; while Del Mar keeps the music unfolding at a slower, more "natural" or unified pace. Beecham's approach may be due not only to his vivid, colorful "temperament," but because he was in the position of PIONEERING the music of Delius - even having to plead for it, or "prove" it palatable to the public. By contrast, Del Mar assumes a greater audience familiarity with Delius. Fenby and Handley both fall between these two approaches.
Del Mar is heard in PARIS, DANCE RHAPSODY NO. 1, THE WALK TO THE PARADISE GARDEN, the PIANO CONCERTO, and LIFE'S DANCE. Again, Del Mar revels in a more naturally unfolding beauty, while Beecham seems to impart more SHAPE to the proceedings. But the music will bear either approach, and we should be grateful for the abundance spread before us. However, Del Mar's approach is at something of a disadvantage in PARIS, because in terms of emotional and structural cohesion this is not one of the stronger Delian scores - and it needs a bit of "interventionism" thereby. (As Lyndon Jenkins has pointed out, for these qualities no recording has ever surpassed the 1934 Beecham. Still, if you must have PARIS in hi-fi stereo, Sir Charles Mackerras comes in a "close second.")
Sadly, there is no Beecham recording of LIFE'S DANCE. Del Mar is excellent, but in their 2010 Dutton performance, David Lloyd-Jones and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra achieve far more of "the turbulence, the joy, energy [and] great striving of youth - all to end at last in the inevitable death" which is the composer's own stated object of this work. (If the orchestral 'Scenes from IRMELIN,' arranged by Beecham, captures the essence of lost innocence better than almost any other music, then LIFE'S DANCE captures the manic rush of adolescence, even more so.)
But Del Mar achieves as much as any conductor has with the PIANO CONCERTO - Beecham included. Perhaps the central problem with this work - its lack of thematic and melodic inspiration - is due to the fact that the idiom of the Romantic Piano Concerto was largely based on the very kind of musical rhetoric Delius was at pains to avoid. Its opening gesture has a Regulation Tchaikovsky First "tilt," as if to say "I have a Piano Concerto to compose. So, if you'll excuse me whilst I don the requisite Russian Romantic apparel..." In reality, Delius was not one for grand, rhetorical openings - except perhaps in A MASS OF LIFE, where the "tilt" proceeds from the heart of the text. There are moments in this Concerto when Delius succeeds at this Russian Romantic pose - especially in the middle "section," when the piano's pastel arabesques glitter against a muted string backdrop. Still, if you want THAT kind of music, from the heart - and with a lighter touch than in Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov - then try the two Piano Concertos of Glazunov.
One of the treasures of this box is a complete set of Delius's solo violin works, played by the late Ralph Holmes. After his premature death in September 1984, at the age of 47, the Delius Society Journal mourned his passing AND relayed to their readers the "good news" that Holmes' recordings of all these works were "in the can." This was true : under Vernon Handley, Holmes taped the early SUITE FOR VIOLIN, the LEGENDE for Solo Violin and Orchestra, and the VIOLIN CONCERTO in May 1984 - less than four months before his death. (The Three Violin Sonatas were recorded much earlier, in 1972.)
The SUITE is full of fascinating ideas, not least in the Intermezzo, which clearly looks forward to the 6/8-meter jollity of the "Andante tranquillo" movement in A MASS OF LIFE. As critic Rob Barnett has pointed out, The LEGENDE has a bit of the "palm court" about it; still, it "pleaseth the ear," especially with the opalescent, cascading filigree of its final moments. In the first movement of the VIOLIN CONCERTO, Handley seems to untangle the "abstract" thematic clusters of the first five minutes, better than even Beecham. And in spite of constantly shifting harmonies, throughout this whole performance the overwhelmimg impression - of both Holmes and Handley - is one of great lyricism. The three VIOLIN SONATAS are accompanied by Eric Fenby, who had not only taken down the "dictation" for the Third and final Sonata, but played and rehearsed all three works in the presence of Delius. To call these performances "authentic" would be to carry coals to Newcastle. This applies in equal measure to the CELLO SONATA (recorded in 1981), accompanied by Fenby and played by Julian Lloyd-Webber. Sadly, Fenby never commercially recorded the CELLO CONCERTO - with Lloyd-Webber or anyone else.
Pianist Eric Parkin plays the early POLKA ZUM CARNIVAL (Delius's first published work), and the THREE PIANO PRELUDES of 1923 - iridescent globules of sound which, on the face of it, could "stand some development" but are all the more alluring for their brevity.
Fenby, playing the venerable Ibach "three-quarter" owned by Delius (and bequeathed to him in Delius's will), accompanies 16 of Delius's songs. He also conducts orchestral accompaniments to nine of the songs (seven of which he also accompanies on piano). The singers are Felicity Lott, Sarah Walker, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. To dredge up a long-suffering word, again : the only seriously "authentic" competition to these little gems may be from the prewar song discs of Beecham, Dora Labbette, Heddle Nash, and Gerald Moore.
With Fenby's orchestral recordings, we can compare his conducting to Beecham's. First, THE SONG OF THE HIGH HILLS seems even more successful under Fenby, who gives this lofty work more "room to breathe" at key moments in its roughly four-movement, continuous structure - to the extent that the "tedious" chromatic semiquaver passages - meant to portray the tedium and effort of the "climb" - seem less "tedious" and, well, more "thematic." The same goes for AN ARABESQUE, which Fenby gives in English. Here, too, Fenby may have an interpretative "edge" over Beecham, with a slightly more leasurely, but never slack, approach. In the FENNIMORE & GERDA Intermezzo, Fenby and Sir Tommy seem to be in a "dead heat" as to beauty and depth. But in LA CALINDA, the IRMELIN Prelude, DANCE RHAPSODY NO. 2, and SONGS OF SUNSET, in this writer's humble opinion Beecham still reigns supreme...Especially in SUNSET, where (again, in this writer's humble opinion) the inner songs require more contrasting tempos than Fenby gives them. However, there is no Beechamesque rival to Fenby's arrangement, for strings, of the poignant TWO AQUARELLES - so called, because in their original choral form they were "to be sung of a summer night on the water."
Finally, the dictated "Fenby Legacy" works for orchestra : IDYLL, CYNARA, A LATE LARK, A SONG OF SUMMER, ELEGY AND CAPRICE, the IRMELIN Prelude, FANTASTIC DANCE and SONGS OF FAREWELL. With Fenby conducting these works, to which he was the painstaking "midwife" (especially the last four works, which are not merely adaptions or completions, but fresh COMPOSITIONS), we are in the presence of true - even primal - greatness. It is difficult to say which is more affecting...To experience the raw honesty and bittersweet regret of CYNARA - especially when the French horn, oboe and English horn intertwine under the phrase "because the dance was LONG"...To hear the gently rising 'seagull' motiv on flute, near the opening of A SONG OF SUMMER...To sail on with the protagonist of Walt Whitman's poetry in SONGS OF FAREWELL...Or in the brief, ghostly FANTASTIC DANCE - the very last "new" music of Delius - to savor these musical fireworks as they flare up, tilt forward, and vanish into darkness and silence.