I fell in love with the music of Frederick Delius (1862-1934) quite literally at primary school. I can remember being struck dumb with a lump in my throat when Mrs Rutherford played us `The Walk to the Paradise Garden'. This appreciation was cultivated by my Mother who familiarised me with the famous miniatures. Then, as I young man I discovered the choral works and the larger scale tone poems. Doing things the wrong way round, as I did, I didn't discover the likes of Beethoven and Shostakovich until my early thirties. When I did, their earnestness cast a shadow of doubt over what I perceived to be the sentimentalism and even mawkishness of Delius and other `English Pastoralists' I had grown up with, such as Vaughan Williams, which led me to neglect them for something over a decade. But people change, and sometimes even change back, and various factors have conspired to rekindle these affections, so I have recently had great delight rediscovering some old favourites. In the process it occurred to me that I had never explored any of Delius' chamber music, or indeed anything of his involving a piano. This disc came out high in my search of the Amazon listings and the prospect was intriguing. How would Delius manage all those lush, stacked chords in such a stripped back medium? Would he try and fail, or would I perhaps find another Delius entirely? I can say that I have absolutely no regrets about my purchase, and that aside from the near negligible price.
The first question one is inclined to ask is why did he suppress the publication of the clearly brilliant Sonata in B of 1892, eventually to be published posthumously? Superficially at least the bright and exuberant work comes across as that of a vigorous young man picking up the baton from a profound but exhausted Brahms. Heard on its own merits it is a very worthy piece. The writing for violin makes no attempt at virtuosity, but aims instead for a marvellous lyricism that is like an outpouring from the primal well of song. Beneath it, the piano modulates with huge freedom of invention, and although the harmonic language is not yet of the richness we will come to know as uniquely his, what we hear is still clearly recognisable as Delius, to be confused with no one else. It has also been pleasing to find that Delius' pianism was as highly developed as his other faculties, being quite able to extract from it a personal palette of sonorities and rhythmic variation. Indeed in this early sonata it is fair to say that the piano does all the work, until more or less the last few minutes, leaving the violin free to soar and sing.
With Sonata No.1 (1905-14) we hear immediately that much has changed. Most obvious to me was a new freedom in his rhythmic approach that implied a new level of abstraction. A willingness to let notes linger, and to stagger the unfolding of harmonic sequences, leads to an enriched sense of emotional ambiguity. It is also fair to say that the bold confidence of the younger man has been replaced by the profoundly mixed poignancy of the mature Delius. It seems to me that most of Delius' mature works are like those symmetrical illusions, such as that of the vase or two faces. From one side we hear music that is evocative of landscape and countryside, frequently suggestive of winds or breezes swirling in long grass or piling up tall clouds, often with a huge light pouring from behind from unseen sources. From the opposing angle though the music depicts a human soul whose life and heart have been devastated. This paradox is descriptive of Delius' own life who was struck down and gradually crippled by syphilis. The opening of this sonata is stormy and tumultuous while remaining tender and lush in a way that only Delius can manage. The violin still sings and everything remains in the service of supernally beautiful melody. The final movement depicts the effort by shimmering, flickering elements to constrain and tame the violence unleashed in the first. There is an abundance of gorgeous heartache in between.
Sonata No.2 (1923) comes from a time when the terrible illness that people are so reluctant to name was eating him alive. It is a single movement work, only half as long as No.1, necessarily composed by dictation to his wife, Jelka. What the work lacks in length it seeks to make up for in density of content, and indeed there is a great deal to unravel in it. As ever, melody is king. I myself find numerous resonances with his choral masterpiece, Delius: Sea Drift / Songs of Sunset
. Amidst this, for the first time on the disc we find the temperature of the violin rising to degrees that leave the possibilities of the human voice behind. The slow movement unfolds as a struggle between a tempestuous anguish, that can no longer be confused with anything bucolic, and music of infinite tenderness that speaks of the most abstract forms of love. The finale is tight and robust, conveying a determination not to yield to defeat or despair.
Sonata N.3 (1930) was dictated to Eric Fenby in the final period of his life and illness. The work seems to me to be a return to the `landscape Delius', the worshipper of Nature, after the struggle with bitterness that characterises No.2. The opening movement is like a delicious dream occasionally disturbed by an outburst of violence. The middle is a triplet dance of a Highland flavour that we know we have heard more than once before in his works. The finale is a brief but intense synthesis of themes and idioms that seems to be trying to break through to something new.
The performances and recording are entirely convincing. Tasmin Little come to the music with absolutely nothing to prove and so her contribution is correspondingly sincere. Piers Lane is pianist who seems to be turning up on quite a few of my latest purchases, and look forward to coming to know his artistry better still.