About this Recording
8.110904 - DELIUS: Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 (Beecham) (1927-1934)

On 7 October 1932 Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) introduced his new orchestra, the London Philharmonic, to an expectant public in London’s Queen’s Hall. If his intention was to shake up the British orchestral scene he certainly succeeded. Critical and public reaction was immediate and unanimous: in the Hall, as the overture ended, excited concert-goers began to stand on their seats to cheer, and they delayed the start of the second half of the concert with an ovation that went on for several minutes. Ernest Newman, senior among London music critics, writing in the Sunday Times, spoke for everyone: ‘Nothing so electrifying has been heard in a London concert-room for years,’ he declared, ‘The tone was magnificent, the precision perfect, the reading a miracle of fire and beauty’ ..... and more in similar vein echoed through other music pages.

Delius’s music, to which Beecham had been devoted ever since discovering it almost 25 years earlier, naturally figured in the LPO’s opening programme. Beecham chose the English Rhapsody Brigg Fair, already among the handful of Delius discs he had been making sporadically during the previous few years with different orchestras; but now, with his own ensemble, he knew he was at last in a position to begin recording systematically this music that he loved so much. As soon as the LPO was established plans were laid and, by the end of 1933, Delius knew what was afoot.

At his home at Grez-sur-Loing in France the 71-year old composer, blind and paralysed and with his health gradually deteriorating, was soon pinning his hopes on these records. "Whatever should I do without Beecham", he would say, when the conductor broadcast one of his works. "I should be content with a few superlative performances like these each year, rather than the mediocre ones I too often hear." Perhaps sensing that he did not have long to live, he sent a heartfelt appeal to Beecham: ‘When am I to have the records? I cannot wait to hear them on my gramophone. This is now my only pleasure. Do not wait too long, dear friend, or it will be too late for me to enjoy them.’ Alas, so it proved. By April 1934, when Beecham was able to begin work on the recordings, the end was not far off. As soon as they were made the first set of test-pressings was despatched to France but, sadly, they were held up in the customs at Calais; letters and telegrams from the Delius household failed to get them released, and when they did finally arrive it was too late. (Delius died on 10 June 1934.)

The test-pressings sent were of the nocturne Paris, the first repertoire to be recorded. By way of preparation Beecham had conducted it at one of his Beecham Sunday Concerts on 25 February; but, so as to key the LPO further up to a pitch of readiness, he arranged another performance ‘ by special request’ on 8 April, the day before the first recording session. Doubtless the ‘special request’ was his own! - after all, as the LPO and the concert series were both his, he could do what he liked - and, although he did not always go to such lengths, he generally arranged at least one concert performance of Delius’s works before recording them. On the present disc, for example, Eventyr, the Closing Scene from Koanga and the excerpts from Hassan all featured in the Delius Memorial Concert which he conducted for the Royal Philharmonic Society on 8 November, shortly before he committed them to disc to complete Volume One of The Delius Society issues.

Curiously enough, the first suggestion from Columbia was for six (not seven) discs, comprising the third Violin Sonata and a selection of songs and with only Paris involving the orchestra. But that was before Beecham took a hand. Not only would he have had his own ideas about what he wanted to record, but he may also have been influenced by a new recording producer, Walter Legge, who had been much involved in developing the concept of ‘Society’ issues for HMV and Columbia and so was well placed to give advice from his own experience. (‘Society’ sets were available to purchasers who pledged to buy complete albums of records: the Hugo Wolf Society was the first).

Walter Legge (1906-1979) was destined to become one of the most important and influential figures in British recording circles. Despite being self-taught he had a natural instinct where music was concerned and, although not yet 30 when he first met Beecham early in 1934, even then he impressed the conductor sufficiently for Beecham to decide that he wanted him as his personal producer. At that time Legge actually worked for HMV, rival within EMI to the Columbia Company for whom Beecham recorded, but special dispensation was granted and for the next six years he took charge of all Beecham’s recordings. Delius’s Paris was the first music they worked on together.

Until Sir Thomas formed his LPO the London orchestral scene could boast a number of orchestras, although only the London Symphony (founded in 1904) was in any sense permanent. All the others - the New Symphony, the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, the British Symphony and even those which played for the BBC and at Covent Garden - drew on a pool of freelancers, and many well known players appeared in them all at various times. Yet another orchestra assembled each autumn to give the concerts of the Royal Philharmonic Society’s season: it too was made up of freelancers, and an accurate title for it would have been Royal Philharmonic Society Orchestra; it also made records but, because its recording activities were unconnected with the Philharmonic Society, on disc it was known as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This is the ensemble that Beecham conducts on tracks 1 and 2 of this disc. From 1932 onwards the LPO replaced the Society’s orchestra, and so the RPO disappeared (and is not to be confused with Beecham’s last orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic, which he formed in 1946).

When recording in pre-LPO days with any of London’s freelance orchestras Beecham’s prestige meant he could always rely on having certain players of his choice, such as the oboist Léon Goossens, in whatever orchestra he was conducting; thus the inimitable Goossens phrasing and sound is heard in the opening bars and elsewhere in On hearing the first cuckoo in spring. Goossens subsequently became first oboe in the LPO: again, magical contributions from him can be heard at the opening and at many other points in Paris. The solo violinist in the Hassan Serenade is Paul Beard, the LPO’s leader from 1932-6.

Lyndon Jenkins

Chairman, The Delius Society

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