As a long time lover of Delius' music, I was keen on hearing this new disc, particularly as it contains the first recording of "A Poem of Life and Love", parts of which were later recast (with the help of Eric Fenby) into "A Song of Summer". I approached this recording with some trepidation, however, as I've found David Lloyd-Jones to be a problematic conductor, whose interpretations are often characterized by a lack of clear focus as well as rhythmic slackness. Unfortunately, my fears were justified in this instance.
At 17 minutes, "A Poem of Life and Love" is quite a substantial work. It provides fascinating listening, although the sections which were to be later salvaged are all the more conspicuous for their superior musical quality. Much of the rest of the work is second rate at best, with a principal theme sounding like something from Delius' student years. Fenby was entirely accurate in his negative estimation of it (as tellingly recreated in Ken Russell's film), and hearing the original conception makes one appreciate and admire "A Song of Summer" all the more.
The "Irmelin" Suite (as arranged by Beecham from Delius' early opera) is pleasant enough, although Delius'/Fenby's later "Irmelin" Prelude has more genuine musical quality and interest in its five minutes than in this fifteen-minute compilation.
I've always found "Life's Dance" to be a problematic work. It predates "Paris" (1899) by a year (though it was revised later), and indulges in some of the same Straussian orchestral virtuosity. However, after an impressively energetic opening and a gloriously lyrical secondary theme, the piece degenerates into a short-breathed and often rhythmically monotonous central section, which cannot be rescued by a return to the opening and a final climax. To barrel through the tedious central portion, as Lloyd-Jones does here, doesn't help matters either, as instrumental detail gets muddied and/or lost in the shuffle. I don't find that any of the earlier recordings by Groves(EMI) Del Mar(Unicorn) or Holten(Danacord) are successful either, though Del Mar comes closest to making this piece work.
The suite from "A Village Romeo and Juliet" is David Matthews' revision of his own earlier(1987) version, written at the request of, and recorded by Carl Davis with the London Philharmonic(Virgin). In this revision, the concluding "Walk to the Paradise Garden" is replaced with the actual final music of the opera. Given the comparative familiarity of "Paradise Garden" I can see the reason for the revision, although I found the original version of this suite to be musically more convincing, as the "Paradise Garden actually follows the Berghald Fair scene in the opera, and the transition is Delius' own. Carl Davis' recording of the original version is also much more musically alive as well as better played and recorded. Matthews' new transition to the final scene is a bit awkward in my opinion, as are all of his other transitions, but the idea of a symphonic synthesis from VRJ is a good one. I could imagine a more extended (30-35 minute) suite including both the "Paradise Garden" and the wonderful dream music from scene 4.
As I said at the outset, I often find Lloyd-Jones' conducting to be problematic, and this disc is no exception. Granted, the RSNO is not a first class ensemble, but under conductors such as Jarvi or Gibson the orchestra can sound more than respectable. On this recording, however, balances are uniformly bad, with coarse, strident brass and weak upper-register strings, problems which are not helped by the garish quality of the recording itself. Overall ensemble is ragged to the point that this whole recording sounds like an under-rehearsed rush job. The only real reason for acquiring this disc is for the "Poem". The asking price by these Amazon sellers is outrageous; I would direct anyone interested in acquiring this recording to prestoclassical.co.uk, where I obtained it for $15.