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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
A Song before Sunrise (1918) [5:58]
On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1911-12) [6:51]
Florida Suite: Dance (La Calinda) (1887) [4:36]
Hassan: Intermezzo and Serenade (1920) [3:56]
Brigg Fair: an English Rhapsody (1907) [15:31]
Irmelin Prelude (rev. 1932) [4:26]
Marche Caprice (1888) [3:46]
Fennimore and Gerda: Intermezzo (1919) [5:02]
Over the Hills and Far Away (Fantasy Overture, 1895) [12:41]
Sleigh Ride (Winternacht) (1888) [5:20]
Summer Evening (1890) [6:12]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Thomas Beecham
rec. 1946 (?), 1956-1962. ADD/stereo.
ALTO ALC1374 [75:15] 

Here be riches indeed: 75 minutes of music recorded in the late 1950s and early 1960s by that master magician and Delius specialist, Sir Thomas Beecham, and still unbeatable. Most readers will want it at its attractive budget-price, even those who have some of the excellent alternative recordings mentioned below. Alto have given us some very fine reissues, such as the Boskovsky Consort’s Strauss Family and other old Viennese dances (ALC1227 – review, ALC1237: Recording of the Month – review) and this ranks alongside them.

If you were looking for a single CD of ‘The Best of Delius’, didn’t want to download the EMI (now Warner) Great Recordings of the Century release – review, no longer available on CD, and weren’t prepared to run to the super-budget 7-CD set of Beecham’s Delius orchestral and choral music (Warner 9029586926) or Sir Thomas Beecham conducts English Music (Warner 9099152, 5 CDs of Delius, plus one of Bax, Bantock, etc. – review), the Alto reissue is self-recommending.

Do bear in mind, however, a similar but slightly different offering of recordings from 1952 and 1956 from Beulah: Beecham conducts Delius. That contains a very good transfer of Beecham’s complete Florida Suite, otherwise available only on one of the multi-CD sets, (3PDR4 – DL News 2015/11). The best way to buy that download is in lossless sound from Qobuz, for the same price (£7.99) that others charge for mp3. Subscribers can stream there.

In fact, none of the three single-album reissues contains quite the same repertoire. The downloadable Great Recordings album, for example, contains the full 11-minute version of the dance from the Florida Suite, not just the shortened La Calinda.

There are lots of goodies in both box sets, of course, each available for around £20 but on offer as I write for £12.67 and £10.50 respectively; don’t pay over £30 to download! Alto give us only the first movement of the Florida Suite; I miss having the whole work and Summer Night on the River. That first movement from Florida was later revised and abridged as La Calinda, which is how it’s performed here, but Beecham’s way with the whole suite is delightfully persuasive and both boxes and the Beulah contain it in full.

Other recordings are available, as the small print says. One such comes on a Nimbus CD of which I received a copy by mistake but was pleased to discover on it fine performances of the Florida Suite and Summer Evening from the English Symphony Orchestra and William Boughton (NI5208, with Vaughan Williams – review). At that time my marginal preference in Florida was for David Lloyd-Jones (Naxos 8.553535), but with a plea for reinstatement of the Beecham, a plea that has since been heeded, at least in the form of the box sets and the Beulah.

The least expensive way to supplement the Alto is with a download-only super-budget offering from Chandos (CHAN6628): the complete Florida Suite, North Country Sketches, The first Cuckoo in Spring and Air and Dance, so just the one six-minute work in common, for £4.99 in lossless sound, with pdf booklet. Those idiomatic performances, from the LPO and Ulster Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley, are also available on a super-budget 2-CD set, CHAN241-37 – DL Roundup January 2009. Handley’s two Classics for Pleasure Delius recordings have vanished into the ether, apart from a handful on a valuable 2-CD collection alongside contributions from Richard Hickox and Sir John Barbirolli (Warner Gemini 2643122, download only).

The Handley recording offers an opportunity to compare two very fine Delius interpreters at work in On hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring. ‘Tod’ Handley, a Sir Adrian Boult alumnus, takes the work notably faster than Beecham, as does David Lloyd-Jones with the RSNO (Naxos 8.557143). Neither sounds too hurried and I can’t disagree with Gwyn Parry-Jones, who described the Naxos as ‘lovingly stylish’ – review1 – but the work benefits from that little extra time that Beecham allows.

Conversely, Beecham takes Sleighride just a little faster than Lloyd-Jones on the same Naxos CD and again I award him the prize by a small but significant margin. In Brigg Fair, too, Beecham is faster than most, without missing any of the rhapsodic nature required in the title. Sir Mark Elder, on a Delius and Butterworth album, adopts a fairly languorous approach (Hallé CDHLL7503)2. That sounded just right when I heard it on its own, as it did to Gwyn Parry-Jones – review – but Beecham’s slightly faster tempo and forward direction seem to be even more to the point. My wife says he’s ‘slightly perkier’, which is about right.

A straight comparison with lossless flac versions of the Great Recordings reissue of the items common to both recordings reveals no great difference between the EMI remastering and Paul Arden-Taylor’s for Alto, presumably taken from LPs. The Irmelin Prelude on Alto is the one let-down, sounding shrill and with a degree of wow not present on the English Music set or the GROC album. Those with absolute pitch should skip this track. None of the transfers could be mistaken for a modern DDD recording, such as the Chandos, Naxos and Hallé albums mentioned, but the EMI/Warner transfers are marginally preferable.

The Beulah transfer, also from disc, mentioned above, is much more tonally secure at the end of the Irmelin Prelude; indeed, the Beulah version of this whole piece sounds much more secure and richer.  Beulah's sound and the timing are more consistent with the Great Recordings album, so I wonder if the Alto transfer was made from Beecham’s older (1946, mono) recording – indeed, the notes mention ALP1889, which contained that recording, so the dates 1958-62 are not strictly accurate. Elsewhere, in the items from ASD357, the sound is fine, as also in Summer Evening, dating from 1956 and first released with miscellaneous Beecham recordings on ASD518.

I’ve said so little about the individual works on the new Alto and made fewer comparisons than usual because Beecham’s way with this music is so well known and so idiomatic as hardly to need mentioning. Even when half of the present CD was released in 1958 (ALP1586, mono, later reissued as ASD357, stereo), Trevor Harvey in Gramophone was able to sum up by saying ‘Delius conducted by Sir Thomas is wine that needs no bush’, which remains, if anything, even more true now than then. Factor in the consideration that the LP cost the weird sum of 41/8½ (£2.09, but equivalent to somewhere in the region of £45 now) and compare that with the asking price of around £6.50 for the Alto containing twice the music and it’s a snip.

Even earlier, in May 1928, Gramophone was describing Beecham’s Delius, in On hearing the first Cuckoo, as having ‘always been justly praised’. Back then the 78 recording of that work (Columbia L2096) cost 6/6 (£0.33); I can’t even guess at the modern equivalent, but it must be a considerable multiple of the price of the Alto CD which contains ten times the music.

Magical performances, then, at an attractive price, but don’t forget to supplement them with one or more of the other recordings that I’ve mentioned, or spend a little more for five times as much music on one of the box sets of Beecham’s Delius while they are on offer so inexpensively. Whichever you choose, Beecham remains the consummate master of this music.

1 Ian Lace, however, was less enamoured of the faster tempi throughout this album – review.

2 Download in lossless sound with pdf booklet from in place of the mp3 from the defunct which I recommended in March 2010. This recording is especially worthwhile for including Percy Grainger’s arrangement of Brigg Fair and his recording of the original folk song

Brian Wilson

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