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June 2012

Frederick Delius’s orchestral music abounds in colour and vividness of effect. During 2012 there will doubtless be numerous commemorative ventures marking the 150 years since the composer’s birth, but Delius’s music all too easily slips through the net. It permeates the senses in ways not quite emulated by his British contemporaries, although needless to say there are common threads and priorities to notice; the fact that Delius spent well over half of his life in France means that he picked up an enormous wealth of influences along the way. All the more so given that, at the age of 22, he moved to Florida to cultivate oranges before moving to Virginia, where he found his feet as a music teacher.

He then moved on to Leipzig and Paris, at which point, finally, he could feel safely distanced from any prospect of continuing along the same path as his naturalized German father, Julius, a wool industrialist who had settled with his wife in Bradford. Grez-sur-Loing, a beautiful town noted for its especial allure for artists and musicians, situated about an hour’s drive south of Paris, would become Delius’s home, and from here he would create a significant body of works, many of them orchestral.

It is surely more than a small mark of respect that five of Delius’s closest allies between them transcribed nine of the 33 orchestral pieces, and all of these appear on two discs for the first time from Somm. Martin Lee-Browne, Chairman of the Delius Society and author of the pithy but attractively put together booklet notes with this recording by Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi, reminds us that music for two pianos became an especially important genre during the second half of the nineteenth century, following on logically from the duets of Mozart and Schubert. The enormous possibilities for assigning melodies to a rich texture spread between two players, each with full control over pedalling, dynamics and tonal inflections, opened up a near limitless range of opportunities for reimagining orchestral sounds. Indeed, transcriptions of operas, along with a good deal of other music besides, would become an invaluable method of bringing such music to a wider audience than could ever otherwise have been the case prior to the age of recordings.

Recorded at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire in 2011, the sound is captured very colourfully indeed, and the immediacy of the ever-altering timbres is very encouraging from the first track on the disc, A Dance Rhapsody No. 1, arranged by Grainger, which soon springs to life with variants on a rather zesty, impish little melody. Brigg Fair also owes something to Grainger, who passed on the melody to Delius in 1907, having heard it while visiting Brigg a couple of years earlier. There are some lovely nuances to savour in this Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) arrangement, which embraces many intricate contrasts from within the evolving folk melody’s variations.

On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring takes its cue from Grieg, who greatly admired Delius and who had previously made use of the same Norwegian folk tune from which Delius’s most popular piece would be crafted.  Among the difficulties facing piano duos with such repertoire are the many cross-rhythms that Delius saw fit to include, which of course serves to amplify the textural dimension wonderfully in his orchestral writing but adds to the complexity of knitting it all together when played on two pianos. I have, on the whole, been very impressed with the sensitive way the two performers unite on this disc, and their collective spirit for addressing the knotty musical priorities.

Poem of Life and Love, arranged by Balfour Gardiner, is a delightful piece, gauged by Callaghan and Takenouchi with just the right balance. Without the aid of Eric Fenby, Delius’s young amanuensis, A Song of Summer would surely never have come to fruition, and Fenby’s own arrangement of the music for two pianos ranks as among the most moving and engaging music here, thoughtfully set down by Callaghan and Takenouchi. ‘La Calinda’, a personal favourite in its orchestral version (Florida Suite, composed in 1886-87), gets a sparkling and sincere treatment using Joan Trimble’s excellent arrangement – I’d have opened the disc with this track, actually, rather than placing it last, if only because it captures so readily the vision of a young Delius, shooting from the hip, an instinctive musician who despised musical snobbery and was simply interested in how music washes over us in a meaningful way.

Mark Tanner

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