Britten, Delius, Elgar & Holst

COMPOSERS: Britten,Delius,Elgar & Holst
LABELS: Warner Apex
ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Great British Music
WORKS: Works by Britten, Delius, Elgar & Holst
PERFORMER: BBC SO/Andrew Davis
CATALOGUE NO: 0927-49423-2
‘It is strange that as the years go by I should think more of the Delius I never knew, than the aged artist I thought I knew’ – the words of Eric Fenby, the man who unlocked so many late Delius scores while working as amanuensis to the blind and paralysed composer.

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It’s not just Fenby; it feels as though there’s some kind of general Delius reappraisal under way. Or maybe it’s just the sudden splurge of reissues that has landed on my desk? Naxos, for instance, has already issued three volumes of Beecham’s orchestral recordings of Delius from the Twenties and Thirties, and superb though the performances are, these are oh-so-firmly in the ‘Historical’ category that sales are going to be smaller than they deserve to be. So what to do when the enthusiasts have all stumped up? Commission a simple slip case for the three CDs and knock some money off the set. This ought to walk out of the shops, and I hope it does, but please bear in mind that the recording quality (particularly in Vol. 1) can be pretty gritty, despite the warmth that has been added electronically – and Brigg Fair has been transferred at the wrong speed (it’s up a semitone). Essential performances, though.

If you feel, however, that you need something closer to the highest-of-fi to get the best out of these magical orchestral scores, then there’s a highly cost-effective route. Andrew Davis’s Delius recordings with the BBC Symphony Orchestra were highly recommended at full price on Teldec, and even more so when Warner made them available again on Apex at the same price as Naxos. Brigg Fair and Paris are particularly successful. Now the disc has been released again in what Warner is calling an Apex Quad; it’s a four-CD slimline box with the title ‘Great British Music’, and as well as that Delius, there is also a disc each of Elgar, Holst and Britten with the same forces, all excellent. It’s the same approach as the Naxos set: money off for buying the box, and it would be all too easy to pass this one by; don’t – it’s a steal.

I’m becoming increasingly fond of EMI’s ‘British Composers’ series, with its stylish presentation and intelligent choice of archive material, and the latest pair of Delius recordings smacks of quality. Beecham first, from the late Fifties, and it’s almost a happy medium between the Naxos and Apex reissues, except that there’s no duplication, so you can acquire this as well with a clear conscience. The Florida Suite and Over the Hills shimmer in stereo, and the Songs of Sunset are warmly atmospheric.

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An even finer bargain is the opera A Village Romeo and Juliet in perhaps the finest recording it has had; it’s certainly better cast than Beecham’s. Meredith Davies conducts, and, newly remastered, the set is a breath of fresh air. It should never have been out of the catalogue, and in this two-disc set you can also welcome back the original coupling: a fascinating illustrated talk about Delius by Eric Fenby – and it’s also where you’ll find my opening quotation.