Delius: Appalachia, Sea Drift / Sanderling, Williams, Tampa Bay Master Chorale
It is a delight to welcome performances of two of Delius’s American-inspired works by forces from Florida, where Delius lived from 1892 to 1895. Although Sea Drift, a setting of a poem by Whitman, is overtly about an American subject, the music is more universal than specifically American. While the initial drafts of Appalachia were made in Paris the year after Delius left Florida - Marco Polo, Naxos’s sister label, once had a recording (8.220452) of this earlier version in their catalogues under the title of American Rhapsody - the work was very substantially expanded to the form we have it here some eight years later, long after Delius had returned to Europe.
I first heard Sea Drift in the original Beecham recording issued on a limited edition Delius Society release of four 78s (now on Naxos) - I still have them. Beecham’s account of the score remains a marvel of sympathetic identification with the spirits of both Whitman and Delius. Unfortunately all of his recordings - and there are a good many of them, from studio and live broadcasts, not all currently available - are in mono. This is a score which absolutely demands the atmosphere of stereophonic sound. Similarly Beecham never recorded Appalachia in stereo, and his last (mono) LP (reissued by Sony) suffered from a baritone who had seemingly been chosen for his ability to sing Danish for the coupled recording of the Arabesque rather than any ability to sing sympathetically in English for the closing ‘negro spiritual’ section of Appalachia. One cannot possibly accuse Leon Williams of sounding un-American, but the tone of his voice is nevertheless rather English and rather too polite. He is not helped by the rather close proximity of the microphone, which brings him closer than the rest of the performers rather than blending him into the whole. Bryn Terfel, in his Chandos recording of Sea Drift with Richard Hickox (coupled with the Songs of Sunset and Songs of Farewell), digs far more deeply into the meaning of the words than Williams does here. The emotion of the latter is too generalised, and his voice lacks the light and shade of Terfel or John Shirley-Quirk on Hickox’s earlier Decca recording.
Appalachia fares rather better in this reading. The orchestra relishes the contrasts in Delius’s set of variations, with a nicely winsome touch in passages such as the waltz variation at 19.57; Beecham allowed a very gusty breath of the ballroom to intrude here. Earlier they are beautifully atmospheric in the passage from 17.01 which recalls Delius’s Florida opera The magic fountain. The chorus is nicely distanced in their brief interjections in the earlier variations, and come into their own with the own variation at 27.50, when they appear to move closer. Unfortunately the close microphone placement given to Williams at 31.52 serves only to emphasise how precisely English is his diction, and the choir are now very far forward indeed, which brings a sense of stridency which is entirely foreign to the Delius idiom. The passage at 33.28 sounds uncomfortably like the closing titles for a Hollywood Western - not at all the area of America that Delius had in mind.
This Naxos disc duplicates exactly the contents of one of Richard Hickox’s earliest recordings of British music, issued originally on an Argo LP in 1980, with Shirley-Quirk at the peak of his form in the baritone solos, which is certainly a reading which deserves to be in any Delius collection - it remains available from Arkiv Music . The Naxos recording is more immediate in general sound than the analogue Hickox, but the latter has plenty of atmosphere and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - many of whose members must have played this music under Beecham - respond with affection to Hickox’s somewhat slower tempos. Indeed Sanderling could sometimes be accused of hurrying, as at the baritone entry at 2.58 where the soloist sounds a bit hustled. It is important to keep Delius’s music moving, not allowing it to stagnate, but the flow can be maintained without undue haste; Sanderling shaves nearly four minutes off Hickox’s speeds in his earlier recording, almost a fifth of the whole duration of a fairly short work. Beecham, even with the constraint of 78 sides, was slower than this, and Delius always expressed his conviction that this conductor understood his music better than anyone else.
It is always a suspicion that when one knows a particular performance well one might be allowing nostalgia to colour reactions to a performance. To test this I played the recording of Sea Drift to a friend of mine who, although he knew and loved the poem, did not previously know the music at all. He like me vastly preferred Hickox, observing that although that performance was noticeably slower, it at the same time had a sense of purposeful motion that Sanderling lacked. He also actually preferred the more integrated sound of the older recording.
Naxos’s cover photograph by Giorgio Fochesato is particularly beautiful and appropriate, and the booklet commendably includes the complete texts of both works. The orchestra and chorus both perform superbly; it is nice to hear a really big choir sing this music - 137 singers are listed - as Delius would have expected in his earlier performances. They maintain pitch even in the most exposed passages of Sea Drift.
-- Paul Corfield Godfrey, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: 8572764
Composer: Frederick Delius
Conductor: Stefan Sanderling
Orchestra/Ensemble: Florida Orchestra, Tampa Bay Master Chorale
Performer: Leon Williams