DELIUS:  Eventyr "Once Upon a Time."  Sleigh Ride.  Five Songs from the Norwegian.  The Song of the High Hills.
John Kjoller, tenor; Helle Hoyer Hansen, soprano; Henriette Bonde-Hansen, soprano; Aarhus University Choir; Hummerkoret; Aaarhus Chamber Choir and Symphony Orch; Bo Holton, cond.
DANACORD DACOCD 592 (F) (DDD) TT:  65:43
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A Viking in Paris. Because his music sounds to me like a Debussy precursor's (yeah, I know: they were born in the same year), I tend to think of Delius as a Francified Briton. In fact, however, Delius had as many, if not more, ties to German culture as French and furthermore early on fell under the spell of Scandinavia, particularly the music of Grieg. Indeed, both Grieg and Delius admired each other's work enormously - against what I would have thought the odds, since musically I find very little in common. Grieg strikes me as a composer of clear ideas, while Delius often gets lost in his own rapture. Grieg gets very little from Wagner, while Delius owes that composer much in terms of harmony and form. All the pieces here have a specific Norwegian or Grieg inspiration. Delius also wrote music inspired by Danish folklore, available on Danacord DACOCD 536, so he wasn't stuck on Norway. Grieg and Norway, however, remained his Scandinavian spiritual centers. Indeed, before he went completely blind, he and his wife, Jelka, traveled to Norway for the last time so that he could see the sunset there. What a Delian moment!

Even so individual a composer as Delius comes from somewhere. In his case, it's probably the Wagner of the "Forest Murmurs" section of Siegfried. Donald Mitchell makes a case for that passage's influence on Debussy as well. However, unlike Wagner and Debussy, Delius's music typically moves neither symphonically nor dramatically, but "associatively." He eludes conductors (and listeners) used to searching out motific building blocks, such as those found in Mozart and Beethoven. In my experience, it takes a special conductor -- Beecham, of course, comes immediately to mind, as does Barbirolli -- if Delius's music isn't to sound like an aural bog. Delius himself gives his performers very little help. He and his musical secretary, Eric Fenby, had attended a performance of one of the violin sonatas. Delius complained privately to Fenby about the performance. Fenby responded that Delius had to take some of the blame, since his scores were so free of expressive marks. Delius replied, "Surely, a truly musical person would phrase it my way." Consequently, the conductor must, to an unusual extent, "channel" the composer.

Eventyr ("folk-tales"), finished in 1917, evokes the alternately dark and radiant world of Scandinavian folklore - the hunting packs of wolves and trolls as well as the sun glinting on snow. Like most of Delius's tone-poems, it tells no story in particular or in detail. Delius usually talks about himself - his reactions to nature or, in this case, to the worlds of Norwegian tales and myths. As I say, it moves "associatively," with one thought leading to another by tangent, rather than by thought-out design. There are brilliant moments, notably a description of something like a goblin pack, with a shout from "20 men's voices" backstage, but in this account probably just the male orchestral players with available mouths. I like it a lot because it moves, for Delius, pretty quickly, and fast music doesn't come easily to this composer. He stretches himself pretty far with very often interesting results.

Sleigh Ride, on the other hand, Delius wrote in the late 1880s, originally as a piano piece. He orchestrated it shortly thereafter. It received its first performance in 1947, Beecham conducting. It's a work that should have become an Instant Light Classic, but one still encounters Delius very rarely in concert and not all that frequently in recording. It begins with what for Delius is a light dance (his fondness for rich orchestral sound precludes anything truly light), punctuated by sleigh bells. Characteristically, Delius loses the specific inspiration of sleigh bells pretty quickly so he can get raptured out by the winter landscape. Toward the end, the sleigh bells and the dance briefly return, but the composer closes with his own rapture.

The Five Songs from the Norwegian, one of two sets, also comes from around 1890. Delius dedicated the songs to Grieg's wife, Nina. These songs are so unusual for Delius, you might not, in a "blind" listening, guess the composer. Frankly, they sound a bit like Wagner's Wesendonk-Lieder. Grieg himself initially fretted that they uneasily wedded Norwegian melos with Wagnerian harmonies, but he very quickly overcame his doubts. The tunes are all original with Delius, but they do set German translations of Norwegian poets. Bo Holten orchestrated them and probably fit them to the original Norwegian words. This is the version sung here. They are flat-out gorgeous. Kudos go to Holten for orchestration so close to Delius's own practice.

Delius often took years to complete a work and almost always had several going at once. He believed very strongly in inspiration. If a piece wouldn't come, he preferred to set it aside until lightning struck again. Song of the High Hills runs counter to his usual practice. He sweat blood over it but wouldn't put it aside. It took him about a year to complete, especially because of (he wrote to Fenby) an "eight-part chorus that wouldn't come right." It's certainly one of his major works. Both Bartók and Kodály admired it, especially the use of a wordless chorus (Delius's instruction: "Sing on the vowel which will produce the richest tone possible"). It drives me crazy with its maddening inconsistency—Vaughan Williams's "village curate improvising" alternating with passages of stunning imagination and beauty. Bartók and Kodály weren't duped: that wordless chorus will blow you away.

All of this is to say, I suppose, that the performances don't always convince me. Holten does best in the five songs. The soprano, Henriette Bonde-Hansen, sings both sweetly and passionately. Holten does well enough in Sleigh Ride, although he doesn't come up to Beecham's magic on EMI and the Aarhus players don't reach the level of Beecham's Royal Philharmonic. With the major works, Eventyr and Song of the High Hills, however, Holten disappoints me, in that he sometimes lets the thread of coherence get away from him. Then again, I'm not really a Delian. The fault could very well lie with me.

S.G.S. (February 2003)