“FREDERICK DELIUS: French Masterworks” – Henrietta Bonde-Hansen, sop./ Aarhus Sym. Orch./ Bo Holten – Danacord

by | Sep 12, 2013 | Classical CD Reviews

“FREDERICK DELIUS: French Masterworks” = Prelude to Margot la Rouge; In a Summer Garden; Five Songs to Words by Paul Verlaine (Orch. Philip Heseltine and Bo Holten); Paris: A Nocturne (The Song of a Great City) – Henrietta Bonde-Hansen, soprano / Aarhus Sym. Orch./ Bo Holten – Danacord DACOCD 728 [Distr. by Albany], 54:08 ***1/2:

If the title of this album throws you for something of a loop, you’re right: Frederick (baptized Fritz Theodore Albert) Delius was an English composer, born in Yorkshire to German-born parents of Dutch extraction who emigrated to England about ten years before Delius’s birth. His musical training and first compositional successes came in Germany. But technically, he lived in France from 1888 to the end of his life (with the exception of the years of the First World War). However, throughout his life, Delius’s musical influences were varied, his focus of interest ranging from the American South to Scandinavia (Grieg being among his important early influences). So if these “French masterworks” don’t sound very French to you, chalk that up to Delius’s restless cosmopolitanism and the undeniable uniqueness of the musical style he forged for himself.

Not at all ironically, Delius’s large tone poem Paris: A Nocturne was first performed in Germany. Then there’s In a Summer Garden, one of his most beloved works, a musical evocation of his garden at Grez-sur-Loing in rural France: it’s usually considered a work in the English pastoral tradition, with which Delius is most strongly associated as a composer.

The brief, sort-of atmospheric prelude to Delius’s one-act opera Margot la Rouge (1902) could hardly be called a masterwork, French or otherwise. But Delius’s settings of the poetry of Paul Verlaine, which occupied him for over twenty years, are both masterly and—in their sinuous, sensuous melodies and delicate chromaticism—really rather French sounding. And I don’t think it’s just the French text or the orchestrations, which were done not by Delius himself but by English composer Philip Heseltine (a.k.a. Peter Warlock) and conductor Bo Holten. Delius’s music seems to me perfectly evocative of Verlaine’s verse, rich as it is with the nature imagery to which Delius was naturally drawn. These pieces, which are entirely new to me, are perhaps the best reason to put this album on your shopping list. Henriette Bonde-Hansen sings them radiantly (though with a tad more vibrato than I generally care for), and the very fine Aarhus Orchestra accompanies admirably.

In fact, the playing throughout is quite good, the winds, for whom Delius always wrote with great care, sounding especially fresh and vibrant. Not to take anything away from the musicians, but the venue and/or recording may have something to do with that. The recording is fairly close to begin with; and the venue, Synfonisk Sal in Aarhus, seems to be on the dry side. While the quieter passages have a very natural sound and balance to them, the loud tutti sections of Paris don’t bloom as much and sound slightly opaque. Individual instruments register with integrity, especially the nicely captured percussion, but the sound is still less than ideal. On points, however, considering the inclusion of those attractive Verlaine songs, this is a recording that Delians and would-be Delians should certainly consider for their collections.

—Lee Passarella

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