Why Delius? The English-born composer’s rhapsodies and idylls, at once dreamy, sensuous and meandering, are not exactly popular. With the honourable exception of the BBC Proms and isolated performances elsewhere, his music is being routinely ignored this year, the 150th anniversary of his birth. Most critics sneer at the mention of him. It is as if a composer who was disdainful of fashion during his lifetime (1862-1934) is determined to remain unfashionable beyond the grave.
The minority who love his sweet, chromatically tinged music tend to do so passionately, and it is they – together with the Delius Trust, set up by his far-sighted widow to propagate his oeuvre – who have sustained a steady market for recordings. The Delius discography is rich, not just because of the dedication shown by an influential succession of interpreters, but also for the way it preserves the legacy of Sir Thomas Beecham, the composer’s confidant and greatest champion. Without Beecham’s support before and after Delius’s death, it is doubtful whether the music would have become so widely known. The recordings Beecham made between 1927 and his death in 1961 set a gold standard by which every subsequent version has been judged.
That’s a burden many a conductor has found difficult to bear. Sir Charles Groves, a noted Delius interpreter of the post-Beecham generation, once told me that when his recording of Cynara came out in 1969, a critic wrote that although Beecham never recorded it, he would have produced a better performance if he had. Groves was big enough to laugh that one off. His EMI recording, with baritone soloist John-Shirley-Quirk, captures the work’s bittersweet nostalgia exquisitely.
Beecham’s secret was to maintain shape and momentum in apparently shapeless, directionless music, without compromising its painterly mood. His 1949 studio recording of North Country Sketches, originally made for 78s and now available on Naxos Historical, was long considered the ne plus ultra for this work, but last year Music & Arts issued a previously unpublished four-disc Beecham anthology recorded at public concerts in Toronto in 1960. North Country Sketches is the only Delius represented, but it is one of the most subtly spellbinding performances of any Delius work I have heard.
The earliest Beecham studio recordings, from the late 1920s and early 1930s, are strictly for Delius fanatics. The sound is crackly and Beecham re-recorded most of the repertoire after 1945. Broadcast tapes re-mastered by the Beecham Trust suffer from the same disadvantage – with one exception, Songs of Sunset from the 1934 Leeds Festival. It is the only surviving document of Beecham performing the work.
Diehard members of the Delius Society would have us believe Beecham had the last word on everything. That may be true of the Florida Suite, one of his few stereo recordings, but plenty of modern performances cast the spell afresh. Richard Hickox’s Appalachia is superior to Beecham’s, not least technically, as is Sir John Barbirolli’s Brigg Fair and Sir Charles Mackerras’s Paris. Sea Drift, Delius’s Whitman cantata, also sounds better in modern versions sung by Thomas Hampson and Bryn Terfel, though I prefer John Noble (conducted by Groves). Mackerras and Meredith Davies recorded excellent studio versions of A Village Romeo and Juliet, Delius’s best-known opera, and Groves gave us a complete Koanga, though Beecham’s recording of the closing scene is hors concours.
Beecham never recorded Songs of Farewell, one of the works Delius dictated in old age to Eric Fenby (and due for revival at the Last Night of the Proms), but it is hard to imagine it sounding better than Sir Malcolm Sargent’s 1964 version, long a personal favourite of mine: it features in EMI’s 18-CD Delius 150th box set, though you can still get it on a previously issued single CD. Among other works overlooked by Beecham are the attractive Danish and Scandinavian songs for soprano and orchestra, recorded for Danacord and Dinemec Classics by Henriette Bonde-Hansen and Carole Farley.
Some of Delius’s output remains deeply unlovable – the three concertos and Requiem fall into this category – but the problematic Mass of Life can be made to work in a recording as charismatic as Norman Del Mar’s live 1971 performance with the young Kiri te Kanawa as soprano soloist. And Tasmin Little’s studio recording of the Violin Sonatas makes a strong case for Delius’s neglected chamber oeuvre.