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What an intensity of love and loss! It would be good to know the reason for the intensity of the feelings summoned up by poetry about a sea bird losing its mate. Was it, as some have written, that he had deep feelings for a lover whom he left in America? Bryn Terfel certainly sings the turmoil to be found in Sea Drift and Richard Hickox and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Choirs heighten the tension on the heart strings. Then, for the Songs of Farewell (poetry of Walt Whitman chosen by Delius wife Jelka Rosen), there is the tearmaking and rending parting of a double chorus with Waynflete Singers, Southern Voices and Bournemouth Symphony Chorus. Without the aid of Eric Fenby, Delius (blind and paralysed) could not have made this tender music. There is a departure with no return. But for me the ardent sensual desire and passion of Songs of Sunset makes it one of Delius greatest works,- rich and lushly poetic. There is eroticism in the music derived from Ernest Dowson's poetry. Sally Burgess and Bryn Terfel duet this warmly and with abandon. Delius knows the feelings and his music can make much of ' O red pomegranate of thy perfect mouth' and the desolation of loss 'By the sad waters of separation' and ' They are not long, the days of wine and roses'. This is great music and singing of ecstasy, longing and loss.
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I first fell in love with Delius' Sea Drift when I was about sixteen when, amongst other things, it caused me to read a poet from cover to cover for the first time. The poet in question was Walt Whitman and his famous anthology was Leaves of Grass (Oxford World's Classics). Whitman's epic poem illuminates the awakening of a young boy to the immensities of nature, and to the immensity of his own feelings in which it is reflected. Through his solitary observations of a pair of mating sea birds, (species unspecified), on the wild shores of New York State, throughout one unforgettable summer, he becomes acquainted with nature's beauties in all her moods of weather and light. Then, when one of the pair fails to return one day, through his intense empathy with the surviving bird, he comes to know nature in her harsher aspects of cruelty and loss. Out of the synthesis of all these feelings a mystical perspective on the oneness of all of life emerges, which was to be the celebratory theme which was to inform all of his work. This perspective was to miraculously survive, and if anything be strengthened, even when tested by the full horrors of the Civil War, later in his adult life. This vast treasury of emotions in the poem, and its cosmic outlook, both inner and outer provide a perfect subject for the composer of nature in all her aspects par excellence, Frederick Delius. Furthermore, Whitman's avoidance of strict metrical formats, and his reliance instead on strange cross-rhythms, and the sheer momentum of words themselves provides Delius with structures that provide the foundation of a form that straddles the boundary between chaos and cosmos. The result is music that does not just sound like, but that is indeed the embodiment of wind and spray, sunlight and moonbeams, and spectral patterns of emotion.

I do not think in fact that this is a particularly good recording of Sea Drift. Orchestra, Choir and soloists seem to be scattered through different parts of the building, and there are acoustic dead spots that have one straining for details no matter how the volume is set. However, once Bryn Terfel begins to sing all such considerations become entirely irrelevant. At his best, as he is for this performance, he is capable of inflections and articulations that do things to me that no other male singer can do. For this reason I award the disc five stars despite its inferior aspects. He has clearly put much thought into the text, and has rendered all of the great artistry of which he is capable (but does not in all cases deliver) into its service. If one accepts this recording as a vehicle for Terfel, even despite its failure to quite achieve its authors full intention, then this disc remains a treasure.

I had not really paid full attention to the remaining two works on the disc for the years I have owned it, until very recently. Clearly they were Delius works, and clearly they were beautiful in the way that Delius unrelentingly is. But I had never done them the kindness of listening to them in their own right, rather than as a double dessert to the main course which preceded them.

Songs of Sunset are settings of five short Whitman poems, all of which feature his perennial theme of metempsychosis, and his favoured metaphors for it of ships and sailing and exploration of infinite seas. Needless to say the songs are very beautiful, the poems spine chilling if you have even the remotest sliver of a mystical temperament, and the overall arc of the work is quite masterful. The work reaches its jubilant peak with the fourth song "Joy, shipmate, joy!", expressive of a higher reality, where spirit is indomitable and all pain illusory. This makes way for the ethereal valediction of "Now, finale to the shore".

The Songs of Farewell are my real discovery of the last few weeks, and what has prompted this review. They are in fact the longest work on the disk, and are written for soloists and choir, with Terfel joined by mezzo-soprano Sally Burgess, who is fine, but rather overshadowed by Terfel, who is again at his best here. These are settings of eight poems by the late Victorian poet, Ernest Dowson. Dowson was a decadent who habituated various circles including, at times, those of Wilde and Yeats. He was considered by some, erroneously in my opinion, to be among their finest talents, but he destroyed himself with drink and melancholy by too early an age to have built a reputation outside the most exclusive literary circles. These eight songs have actually prompted me to explore Dowson's work, The Poems And Prose Of Ernest Dowson, and life Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Dowson, Poet and Decadent (Tauris Parke Paperbacks), in some depth, but that is another story, perhaps for other reviews. Suffice to say that this selection, best apprehended in ignorance of the life details of their author, form a wonderful and deeply touching group, and are set to music which have caused me to reassess just how fine a composer Delius actually is.

It must be said that Delius' soundworld is utterly distinctive and unmistakably individual. As such, this implies a limitation in his range of emotional expression, but I have come to have renewed regard for just how much mastery is involved in his doing of what he does. I had become accustomed to thinking of Delius as a fine but minor composer, at his best as a miniaturist. But there is in fact nothing minor about the powers of imagination and exquisite craftsmanship that go into all his works, or about the mastery of form he brings to his larger scale works. In fact I have concluded that its time for a bit of a Delius binge, and to make the acquaintance of others works by this composer whom I have loved so long, but perhaps have underestimated and thence neglected.
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on 20 November 2008
I would like to restrict my "review" to the Songs of Sunset although the other selections, Sea Drift and Songs of Farewell, are very worthwhile too. Bryn Terfel is excellent, Sally Burgess also good, but not excellent. In spite of the fact that this recording(the Hickox one) is much younger I would prefer the one directed by Sir Charles Groves with John Shirley-Quirk and Janet Baker.Somehow the older recording seems more exciting:to be found on the following cd:Mass of Life
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on 31 October 2015
Wonderful music, all three works, and superbly conducted and sung despite the difficulty to be over come with a lot of the composer's vocal music, and a well balanced recording: worth every penny.
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on 26 October 2015
Beautiful music and Bryn Terfel is such a 'special' singer.
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