About this Recording
8.110982-83 - DELIUS: Village Romeo and Juliet (A) (Beecham) (1946-1952)

Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra • Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961)

Delians and Beecham enthusiasts will probably continue for ever to debate the relative merits of the earlier recordings made by the conductor in the 1930s, mostly with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, in comparison with those of the 1940s and 1950s recorded with handpicked players of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Following these two major periods of activity, the famous EMI stereo remakes made even later in his career allowed a third bite of the cherry, which at last allowed Beecham's subtle balance of dynamics and layered textures to be appreciated with something approaching sonic authenticity and truth. At the height of his powers in his first trail-blazing recordings, the younger Beecham strove for a livelier and fresher response that the orchestra was not always able to match. The special relationship with the Royal Philharmonic, very much Beecham's own orchestra immediately after the Second World War, brings an even subtler, more flexible response, occasionally compromised by less than ideal recording quality. Most listeners however remain grateful that such a close match between composer and interpreter is documented so extensively and with such consistently magical inspiration.

Unlike some received opinions, this special, almost unique, partnership continues to survive the critical re-evaluation of succeeding generations, frustratingly perhaps when subsequent conductors have been so reluctant even to begin to try to foster a continuing performing tradition for the composer. Detractors have suggested that the music of Delius is all effect with little substance, and the nagging fact remains that few composers are so inescapably dependent upon the creation of atmosphere. Unlike so many contemporaries, both then and more especially now, he was remarkably sparing with expressive annotation, frequently content with just the notes. A score of a work by Delius marked by Beecham, however, tells a different story, instantly revealing a most sympathetically engaged music editor at work. Pulse, dynamics, phrasing, expressive nuance and articulation, together with an acute sensitivity to constantly changing orchestral balance, are annotated with painstaking practical detail to compliment what can seem a surprisingly naked, almost template, original score. The end result in performance requires levels of intensive rehearsal to test any orchestra's powers of patience and concentration. There are no quick short cuts to success.

A Village Romeo and Juliet is Delius's fourth and most successful opera. Work started in 1897 in a decade that saw the stage as a prime focus for his compositional activity. The previous seven years had seen the completion of Irmelin, The Magic Fountain and Koanga, all large-scale works much influenced by Wagnerian music drama. The new opera was to be the final instalment of what started out as an operatic trilogy highlighting different ethnic cultures, Native Americans, Negroes, and Gypsies or Vagabonds. Although both the two preceding operas basically fulfilled their objectives on a local colouristic level, the choice of Gottfried Keller's immensely popular and well-established story from Die Leute von Seldwyla radically altered the trajectory and dramatic potential of the new work. His transference of Shakespeare's timeless and cautionary tale of outlawed young love to an unforgiving everyday provincial environment offered far deeper exploration of fundamental aspects of the human condition than anything Delius had touched upon so far. Although vagabonds do feature prominently in the scenario, it is the study of individual freedoms, both physical and spiritual, that transforms the psychological reach of the piece, allowing the composer to combine leitmotiv technique and tone-painting with potent resonances of Tristan und Isolde.

Originally entitled Le Jardin du Paradis (the French possibly due to the fact that one of the earliest sources was the first vocal score prepared by the composer Florent Schmitt), the opera was planned as a prologue and three acts. Having commissioned drafts from two different librettists, Delius eventually abandoned both and wrote his own in English, not completing a definitive text until 1899. By this time he had the considerable advantage of having heard concert excerpts from Koanga in London, the first time he had been able to assess his mature operatic style and orchestration in live performance. The result was a surge of confidence and inspiration that prompted completion of the music in early 1901, the change of title and a transformation into an extended through-composed lyric drama in six scenes. Paradoxically the work's most famous passage, The Walk to the Paradise Garden, was composed much later in 1906 to replace a considerably shorter 45-bar interlude that would not have been long enough to accommodate a substantial scene-change for the premiere of the opera in Berlin in February 1907.

Beecham met Delius for the first time later the same year. Although he had not attended the premiere, he was eager to stage the work for the first time in England, an event that duly took place at Covent Garden three years later on 22nd February 1910 with Walter Hyde, Ruth Vincent and Robert Maitland in the leading roles. It was this work more than any other that cemented their friendship and Beecham always retained a special affection for it. He revived the work for three performances at Covent Garden in 1920, gave an early BBC broadcast performance in 1932 with Dora Labette, Jan van der Gucht and Dennis Noble, and also conducted a series of three more performances on consecutive nights at the Royal College of Music in London in June 1934. This complete recording from 1948, the first of any Delius opera, took place immediately after another BBC broadcast with essentially the same forces, apart from the notable exception of Lorely Dyer, who replaced Vera Terry as Vreli. It has remained a landmark performance ever since, with Beecham's evangelising conviction, passion and experience shining from every bar.

The closing scene of Koanga was not included in the 1899 London concert of excerpts conducted by Alfred Hertz, but this was the first of Delius's operas to be staged complete in 1904 at Elberfeld under the direction of Fritz Cassirer, who also conducted the premiere of A Village Romeo and Juliet. Beecham eventually gave the British premiere of this opera as well, but not until 1935 at Covent Garden with John Brownlee and Oda Slobodskaya in the principal roles. The production was immediately taken on tour to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford and Leeds, and Beecham regularly performed his own compilation of the closing scene as a concert item.

Hills and mountains were abiding places of fascination for Delius. As part of his Pantheist ethic, their changing climate, isolation and awesome grandeur were perfect sounding-boards for pondering the advantages of non-human presence. No other composer has captured their silent wonder and imposing endurance in quite the same way. The early and amazingly assured orchestral work On the Mountains, the Ibsen melodrama Paa Vidderne, Over the Hills and Far Away, On Craig Ddu, Appalachia and In den Bergen, the second part of A Mass of Life, had all previously visited the upper regions, but Delius reserved his most significant and accomplished expose of their qualities for The Song of the High Hills, composed in 1911. He encapsulated the spirit of the work in a letter to Norman O'Neill written in 1920: 'I have tried to express the joy and exhilaration one feels in the Mountains and also the loneliness and melancholy of the high Solitudes and the grandeur of the wide far distances. The human voices represent man in Nature; an episode, which becomes fainter and then disappears altogether'. Note that for Delius, 'man' does not warrant the capitalisation of 'Mountains', 'Solitudes' or 'Nature' and that his chorus remains wordless and mostly remote throughout. The innovative spatial qualities of the music are without parallel in his output. Beecham literally rises to the challenge to go several steps beyond with compelling authority.

When it comes to the orchestral miniature, whether by Delius or anyone else, Beecham remains unrivalled. The endearing sentiment and sheer beauty of the touching little Irmelin Prelude or the deceptively simple pleasures of the Intermezzo and Serenade from Hassan, composed in 1920 as part of exotic incidental music for James Elroy Flecker's Arabian play, demonstrate Beecham's complete mastery of what became affectionately known as 'lollipops'. Whatever happened to them? Have we lost our taste or do they still have 'The Personal Property of Sir Thomas Beecham' too resolutely stamped upon them?

Ian Julier

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