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.


David Damant said...

What a wonderful photograph. It stands as itself, a window on life, death and humanity.

David said...

Which one - the portrait?

David Damant said...

Yes sorry - I should have mentioned that I meant the portrait. The son has Hamlet in him, the couple understand that they will not live for ever.

David said...

Interesting that you thought there was a son in there - as I may not have made clear enough, that's Percy Grainger, a man always in search of a father. Together with Jelka he carried the paralysed Delius up a Norwegian mountain on a chair supported by poles.

David Damant said...

My point wasas I said, that the picture stands by itself. The positioning of the young man was as a son, or a son equivalent. There would be a separate and more paticular analysis if one takes account of the full story of all three

David said...

I'm afraid I was a little sidetracked by the observation that Jelka looks like Shirley Williams. And Percy always seems a little strange, of course. I imagine he was a scary person to meet.

John said...

Actually those mountain shots are very evocative too.

J Vaughan said...

For me, a little Delius can often go a long way, though I do like the _Florida_ _Suite_, _Sea_ _Drift_ and _A_ _Village_ _Romeo_ _And_ _Juliet_ among possibly a few others. It may come as no surprise that I also have that Mackerras recording including _The_ _Song_ _Of_ _The_ _High_ _Hills_, though have not spent enough concentrated time on it to have an informed opinion one way or the other. Do you like his way with _Appalachia_? He also conducts the three works I mentioned above, and once sent me the first two as a gift. I was visiting London in 1990 when that _Fennimore_ _And_ _Gerda_ production was being staged, and recall hearing that it was controversial. I did not attend. Yes, Delius apparently loved his Norway, and wrote some sketches, in two of which he quotes the Norwegian National Anthem. It is tempting to think that Grieg, Delius and Grainger may have had nothing really in common, but that might not be as true as it first appears.

_Falstaff_ is still not among my favourite Elgar works, but I find that I am now understanding it better than I did at first.

Was the Rostropovich _Boris_, this past Saturday's _BAL_ recommendation as presumably you heard, available when you did your own feature on it? If you did hear the feature, as I am guessing was the case, you heard the current reviewer level some criticisms at the Abbado. I admit to having been surprised that he almost-entirely dismissed the Rimsky version. So we Washingtonians have some musical bragging rights now! I personally liked the choral sound, though recognize that it was not authentically Russian, and probably would want such in the Coronation Scene, a part of the opera I do know just a little.

J. V.

David said...

The bigger Delius scores do repay close inspection. I love Appalachia, as I said, and through that Mackerras recording, which sounds gorgeous at every turn. The students last night were fascinated by it, and I think we've all got a grip on the structure of Song of the High Hills now.

Yes, that Rostropovich/Raimondi Boris was available when I did the Building a Library, and though I found Raimondi's approach intriguing, it didn't seem idiomatic and the performance as a whole I found heavy. It seems that the Gergiev recording of the two versions, the only newcomers since then, aren't in the catalogue, so I'm not sure why this was resuscitated.

J Vaughan said...

Have you heard, either in the famous Chandos recording of the original version of RVW's _A_ _London_ _Symphony_ or else Sir Eugene Goossens' recording of its penultimate version, a passage near the end of the Second Movement which Mr. Herrmann was sad to see cut? I like it as well, and, heretical though it might seem to VW, personally prefer that penultimate version to the final one, though reluctantly still play Sir Adrian's fine recording of the latter out of respect to the composer.

I have hitherto largely avoided Delius's _A_ _Mass_ _Of_ _Life_ since I would probably not be in sympathy with Nietzsche's text, and, from all accounts, none of the available recordings are ideal, even Sir Thomas's. I might wish to hear more of his operas, possibly _Coanga_, a little of which I heard some years ago. Do you have and like Sir Charles's EMI recording of _Paris_?

J. V.

David said...

Yes, I do like the extended London Symphony - one of the few Hickox recordings I treasure. Though my all time favouite is Barbirolli's of the much shorter and more familiar version.

Sir Charles's Paris? Yes - but Groves, not Mackerras.

bonnie brauer said...

As I understand you, yesterday's performance of "A Song of the High Hills" was your first exposure to this magnificent piece. Unfortunately, there were a number of odd pauses and little line or phrasing. If you would like to hear a top notch recording of this, with color and integrity, look out for a copy with Fenby conducting it.

- bonnie brauer

David said...

As I think I mentioned, Bonnie, the recording through which I became better acquainted with the work was Mackerras's. Are the colour and integrity of that enough for you? I certainly found them remarkable - as I do most of the late Sir Charles's recordings. Appalachia I think I warm to even more.

J Vaughan said...

I do seem to recall that Sir Charles Groves recorded _Paris_, but, though I have yet to recheck, I feel confident that this one is with Sir Charles Mackerras (a subsequent re-checking seeming to confirm that), and is coupled with two concerti featuring Miss Tasmin Little and Mr. Raphael Wallfisch, one with the both of them and the other with just one. Yet the orchestra is the RLPO, which, of course, the other Sir Charles conducted for some time, though, of course, our Sir Charles was Principal Guest Conductor there in the 90's.

J. V

David said...

What I meant, JV, was that the recording of Paris I have is Groves's - it is indeed with the RLPO and also includes Eventyr and the Dance Rhapsody No. 1