Sunday, 3 October 2010
Not forgetting Delius
The trouble is, I tend to have done just that over the past few years. Can't remember when I last got to grips with a disc or a live performance of the Bradford-born German's music: probably the time I seemed to be alone in liking Julia Hollander's much-lambasted ENO production of Fennimore and Gerda in the good old days of the Sunday Correspondent (Jane Livingston of the press office seemed to be eternally grateful for that, which is how I maintained my tenuous foothold there for a while). Yes, it was the one in which Sally Burgess climbed into the piano. But Mackerras kept a stream of beauty alive in the orchestra, and having seen the far more insipid St Louis version at the Edinburgh Festival as an underwhelming introduction, I was grateful for the strengths of this one.
Now it's time to prepare the BBC Symphony students for Sir Andrew Davis's performance of The Song of the High Hills next Friday. Can you believe I've never listened to the work before, although the Mackerras CD has been sitting on the shelves - Appalachia I do know and love - and the late Christopher Palmer, whose typically 'only connect' study of the composer I'm reading at long last, thought Song Delius's supreme masterpiece.
On a first hearing without a score, I wasn't so sure; more detailed study on Tuesday morning may yet change my stereotypical resistance to music that just seems to drift. I did, though, stop swimming in the Delian soup and really listen to what turns out to be the section where Delius writes 'The wide far distance - The great solitude'. The wordless chorus which was the composer's passport to infinity ever since he heard Negro spirituals from afar on the Florida orange grove he managed in the 1880s, the Grieg-like freshness of the woodwind writing and the celestial string drift: if these aren't visionary, I don't know what is.
It all stems from Delius's many walking expeditions in Norway. I'd love to follow in his footsteps but I only - only! - have Alps, Apennines, the Hindu Kush and the Western Ghats to evoke a parallel sense of high, remote solitude.
The above and below don't quite fit - in fact I was in Verbier - but they'll accompany well enough Delius's letter to his wife Jelka in June 1896 from the Jotunheim. He wrote: 'the sun sets at about 8.30 behind the mountains and huge shadows begin to creep across the valley: at 10.30 only the tops of the hills covered with fir trees are lighted by the sun's rays and stand out as if in gold. Then everything disappears in a mystic half-light, all very dreamy and mysterious - it is light enough to read and to distinguish every detail at the other end of the valley and on the mountain tops.'
Of course I didn't have his insomnia from the sun rising again at 2.30am, though I've experienced that in Ostrobothnia, St Petersburg and Faro in midsummer. Translated into music, the expression is one of regretful chromatic transience. Constant Lambert was right to say that in masterpieces of the first order we don't separate harmony from melody, rhythm and orchestration. His example of a (then) contemporary composer who did everything, Sibelius, loomed in all his glory in a half-extraordinary Philharmonia concert I heard conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen on Thursday.
Yet in life Delius was a man of many parts and unexpected vigour, at least in his earlier years: a synagogue singer in Jacksonville, a Nordic walker of Wordsworthian stamina, Nietzschean sensualist since his Leipzig days and in Paris the friend of Munch, Strindberg and Gauguin. Your eyes don't deceive you: that is indeed Nevermore up top behind Delius in the portrait painted by his wife Jelka in 1912. The Tahitian reclined above the mantelpiece in the home Fritz and Jelka shared in Grez sur Loing and now she's in the Courtauld (and presumably, at this very moment, in the Gauguin exhibition). The colours below don't seem at all right, but wikimedia copyright-free images are not to be sniffed at.
The wonder of Palmer's monograph is that it covers all this, and makes extraordinary connections with other spirits of the age. Grainger is an obvious one, as one of the many folk who served the paralysed, blind and testy composer in later years. I've already been getting excited by discovering more of his music in preparation for next year's anniversary.
Today, in fact, on a wet Sunday which kept us indoors, The Song of the High Hills made me turn to Grainger's two extraordinary Hill Songs. Their original wind-band arrangements I found on a stunning Chandos disc which is a typical Grainger ragbag, including as it also does his 'rambles' on Dowland's 'Now, o now I needs must part' and Bach's 'Sheep may safely graze' as well as another epic oddity, The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart. Often quirky, sometimes too meandering just like Delius, never boring (unlike Delius, at least to my ears, occasionally).
It was Grainger who compared Delius to Duke Ellington, and thanks again to Palmer for making me seek out the awkwardly-titled Transblucency, with its wordless soprano melding into trombone and duetting with clarinet.
So much more to discover on the Palmer trail, not least several direct comparisons recommended between Delius and Gershwin, the music of Karg-Elert and the film scores of Bernard Herrmann (it was the diplo-mate, in fact, who came into the room while I was playing the first of the North Country Sketches and declared it sounded like a Hitchcock soundtrack. Not as deaf, then, to orchestral as opposed to vocal beauties as he professes). In the meantime, for the class I have to balance The Song of the High Hills with a work I love to distraction, Elgar's Falstaff. The human and the natural should make good bedfellows in Friday's concert.