25 Songs including “Seven Songs from the Norwegian” and settings of Jacobsen, Verlaine, Heine, Jonson, Herrick and Shelley
Yvonne Kenny (soprano) & Piers Lane (piano)
Recorded 15-17 May 2006 in All Saints Church, East Finchley, London
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: April 2007
CD No: HYPERION CDA67594
Duration: 62 minutes
Bradford-born to German parents, Frederick Delius (1862-1934) wrote songs throughout much of his composing career, from 1885 to 1919. His choice of texts pretty much sums up his own cultural background, with poems by Scandinavian, German, English and French poets, and this CD presents a cross-section of 25 out of his total of 62 songs with piano.
Norway, as Stephen Lloyd reminds us in his informative booklet note, became Delius’s spiritual home, not least through his friendship with Edvard Grieg. The disc opens with “Seven Songs from the Norwegian”, dating from 1889-90. They are to words by poets that Grieg himself also set, such as Bjørnson, Ibsen and Vinje. Delius originally set them in German translations, and they are performed here in English, all in versions by Peter Pears, except ‘Twilight Fancies’, which is in Fanny Copeland’s English text. ‘Twilight Fancies’ shows just how much Delius owed to Grieg’s example, both harmonically and in the shape of the voice part, while there is a hint of Schumann in ‘Young Venevil’.
With the two Jacobsen settings of 1896-7 we begin to hear the individual voice of the mature Delius. From “Seven Danish Songs”, ‘In the Seraglio Garden’ is an effective exercise in oriental languor, while ‘Irmelin Rose’ finds the composer in a more sombre story-telling mood.
A group of four Verlaine songs follows, two from 1895 and two from 1910 and 1911. Delius probes the melancholy of “Il pleure dans mon coeur”, “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit” and “Chanson d’automne” sympathetically. “La lune blanche”, while not quite reaching the heights of Fauré’s sublime setting (who could?) has a fine sense of grace and poise.
Another three songs ‘from the Norwegian’, pre-dating the opening group by a year, are relatively conventional strophic pieces, but they have charm, and an occasional harmonic twist to hint at Delius’s future direction.
Finally comes a miscellaneous group of nine songs varying in date from 1888 to 1915. “The nightingale has a lyre of gold” (words by William Ernest Henley) is a characteristic piece of Delian nature poetry, while ‘I-Brasîl’ finds the composer in a Celtic mood that is almost Baxian (‘I-Brasîl’, so the Delius Complete Works score informs, is “the name of the old Irish legendary county in the Atlantic”).
Two German settings, ‘O schneller mein Ross’ (the earliest item on the disc, alongside the second group of Norwegian songs) and ‘Aus deinen augen fliessen meine Lieder’ (the latter to words by Heine) receive their first recordings here. They are followed by two of Delius’s “Four Old English Lyrics” from 1915. Ben Jonson’s ‘So white, so soft, so sweet is she’ is given a setting of touchingly restrained ecstasy, while Herrick’s ‘To Daffodils’ produces a typically Delian meditation on transience. From “Three Shelley Songs”, ‘Love’s Philosophy’ brings out an unexpectedly playful side in the composer, after which the disc ends, very effectively, with the soft, wistful musing of ‘Summer Nights’, another example from “Seven Danish Songs”.
Delius generally writes effectively for the solo voice. You occasionally wince in sympathy with Kenny when she is required to place an inappropriately tight vowel on the climactic top note of a phrase, but she handles such demands with aplomb. Occasionally she is just a whisker under the note, but this is not enough to spoil enjoyment of her characterful singing. Piers Lane is equally stylish, exploring Delius’s varied keyboard writing with a fine command of colour and phrasing. Together they forge a sympathetically responsive partnership that serves the varied nature of these songs well.
The recording quality is excellent and the booklet includes full texts of all the songs together with translations of the French and German settings.