About this Recording
8.572261 - DELIUS, F.: Violin Sonatas (Complete) (Stanzeleit, Fenyo)

Frederick Delius (1862–1934)
Violin Sonatas (Complete)


Delius’s four sonatas for violin and piano were composed between 1892 and 1930, and so span virtually the whole of his composing career. The sonata of 1892, though discarded by the composer and not published until 1977, has recently found ready acceptance in the repertoire. The remaining three have long been established, but in the numbering 1–3 in order of composition and publication. Of them the late Eric Fenby (1906–97), Delius’s amanuensis from 1928 to the composer’s death in 1934, once wrote that no works of Delius had been more maligned and treated as oddities unworthy of notice. But he was speaking almost forty years ago, since when an increasing number of recordings and performances has enabled a reappraisal. Today we can even hear how these works were played while Delius was alive, notably by Albert Sammons who recorded Nos. 1 and 2 in the 1920s (and went on to record No. 3 in 1944). Delius could also hear No. 3 played by its first performers, May Harrison and Arnold Bax, and he thoroughly approved Lionel Tertis’s arrangement for viola and piano of No. 2 when that, too, was recorded.

Fenby was himself in no doubt about the stature of Nos. 1–3, and had some interesting things to say about Delius’s sense of form in them:

These three most singular sonatas would themselves, in my opinion, have made the reputation of a lesser composer. They belong to a time when the term sonata still aroused certain expectations of dramatic inter-play of themes. These expectations are not fulfilled in Delius’s conception of sonata. Delius relies almost entirely on a succession of episodes to give continuity. This, and the element of surprise in some of these lovely byways of music make these sonatas, to my mind, unique. It is, I feel, where Delius excels. We may tire, perhaps, of his oneness of mood, but if we ourselves are in that mood he never fails to project that mood in sounds so unmistakably his own that by his very genius he makes them his own. But, despite his sensuous textures, he was deeply concerned to achieve in sound a balanced synthesis of musical design, however the action of its content or whether its material was accommodated in three separate movements or one. Delius was, above all else, an artist in the poetry of sound; all these sonatas reveal his gift in sustaining lines of lyrical flow, more akin to prose than verse. The melodic direction is sure and firm, and moves with that unconscious skill which comes when genius has found itself.

The early Sonata in B major was first played at the Paris apartment of the pianist Harold Bauer in 1893, the year after its completion, by the violinist Serge Rivarde. As it failed to attract a publisher at the time Delius lost interest in it and it disappeared from view; indeed it was not heard again until 1957 when Wilfred Lehmann, then leader of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, played it for the BBC, apparently at the instigation of Delius’s redoubtable champion, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. The work is in three clear-cut movements, musically uncomplicated in style and layout and reflecting the thirty-year old composer’s inclination at that time to embrace a more orthodox musical form. After a remarkably positive and assured opening, themes from other works of his dating from the same time (the opera Irmelin and an orchestral piece entitled Paa Vidderne) are embedded in the texture of the first and last movements. Violinists have spoken of an immediacy that is hard to resist and the infectious gaiety of the sonata’s outer movements, to which the intimate romantic musings of the Andante molto tranquillo provide perfect contrast. Delius had once been an accomplished violinist, so it is unsurprising that some of the solo writing displays a virtuoso element. The (numbered) Violin Sonata No. 1 was begun in 1905, when the first two movements were completed, but was then put aside for a decade and remained unfinished until 1915. It is the longest of the three though, like No. 2, it plays without a break. Understandably, there are traces of influences not yet absorbed, at least in the first two movements: yet the sweep of the opening is irresistible, while elsewhere the work’s earlier provenance—from the time of Delius’s greatest orchestral pieces and operas—lends a spaciousness of design not to be found in the second or third sonatas. The finale bursts out in strongly dotted animation but presently slows for a most striking passage marked ‘slow and mysteriously’, into which have been read the composer’s reflections upon the tragic conflict then raging in Europe (‘a notion not without truth’, according to Fenby). Once this mood is dispelled the music grows more excitable and, after an allusion to the very opening theme, the sonata ends in something akin to a virtuoso manner. The first performance was given on 24 February 1915 in the Houldsworth Hall, Manchester by Arthur Catterall, then leader of the Hallé Orchestra, and Robert (R.J.) Forbes, who was one of the earliest exponents of Delius’s Piano Concerto.

The Sonata No. 2 is the most personally idiomatic of the three. It was completed with the help of the composer’s wife Jelka (no small achievement given the fact that the piano part Delius dictated was quite beyond her own skills as a pianist). Delius was by this time (1923) an invalid, though he could still see to dictate and correct. The work opens with the violin playing 28 bars without break; in those bars are merged all the melodic fragments and their expansions that the sonata needs. Delius’s love for the instrument he played here illumines every bar, notably in the slow central section with its lovely cantilena, which he was unable to resist making the violin sing twice in its entirety without, however, endangering the balance of this section in the overall scheme. Indeed, not one note is misplaced in a concise sonata that provides a classic demonstration of craftsmanship concealed by lyrical charm. Albert Sammons (dedicatee and first performer of the Violin Concerto that Delius composed during 1916), together with the composer’s pianist friend Evlyn Howard-Jones, gave the first performance for the Westminster Music Society in London on 7 October 1924, and recorded it shortly afterwards.

The Sonata No. 3 owes its very existence to Eric Fenby; by 1928 when he first arrived hoping to assist Delius, the composer was already blind and paralysed: thus it forms part of that amazing Indian Summer of Delian composition which his presence and astonishing capability made possible. When they began work on the sonata during 1930 Fenby found that sketches from an earlier time existed; some of these were later discovered to date from as early as 1918 (and thus from before the Second Sonata) while half-a-dozen bars at the start of the second movement had been dated 1924 by Jelka Delius. Unlike its two predecessors, No. 3 is in three separate and distinct movements; a light Andante scherzando is placed second, while the finale begins with a slow melody that returns at the very end before the work fades into silence. Within the second movement is to be found the memorable broad theme that figured in Delius and Fenby’s very first attempt to work together by dictation (an attempt so hopelessly unsuccessful that their relationship nearly foundered even as it began). The sonata is dedicated to May Harrison—Delius had composed his Double Concerto (1915) for her and her cellist sister Beatrice—and was given its première by her at the Wigmore Hall in London on 6 November 1930 with the composer Arnold Bax as pianist.

Lyndon Jenkins
Chairman, The Delius Society, 1994–2000

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