Delius: Hassan - complete incidental music. Zeb Soanes, narrator; Britten Sinfonia Voices; Britten Sinfonia / Jamie Phillips. © 2024 Chandos Records


Harmonically Exotic

GERALD FENECH finds a new recording of Delius' Hassan absolutely riveting

'... some truly exhilarating performances ...'


Frederick Delius (1862-1934), one of the finest English composers of his age, had to pass through a very hard time all his life to achieve his musical aspirations. He fought his parents to be a musician, struggled with syphilis and was neglected in his adopted France - but against all the odds he did, after all, become one of England's greatest composers.

Delius was exposed to music from an early age and had both piano and violin lessons, but his parents did not want him to become a professional musician, and he dutifully spent three years working at his father's wool company. In 1884 Delius was sent to Florida to supervise an orange plantation that his father had agreed to finance. He spent much of his time there filling the gaps in his music education and composing his Florida Suite.

Following his son's stay in Florida, his father grudgingly allowed him to enrol on an eighteen-month course at the Leipzig Conservatoire. There Delius befriended Grieg, who helped him persuade Delius' parents that he should make music his career.

In 1897 Delius moved to Grez-sur-Loing, a village forty miles south-east of Paris. He was based there for the rest of his life, apart from a brief period during World War I when he took refuge in England and Norway. Meanwhile he had formed a relationship with German artist Jelka Rosen whom he married in 1903. Inspired by his new surroundings, Delius' creative inspiration went into overdrive, beginning with the sublime opera A Village Romeo and Juliet.

The famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham supported Delius with great zeal, and in 1929 he organized and directed a festival of six concerts devoted entirely to Delius' music. This, at long last, confirmed Delius as one of England's most important composers, although by then he had become severely immobilized and sat in the audience almost totally paralysed and blind as a result of the syphilis he had contracted during his time in Florida. In 1934 Delius's condition worsened and he relied on morphine to ease his suffering. Delius died in June 1934, within four months of two other great British composers of the period, Elgar and Holst.

With works such as On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Over the Hills and Far Away and Walk to the Paradise Garden, Delius can truly be considered as one of England's foremost musical tone painters. But the work under review is a totally different piece, which shows the composer's versatility, even when the subject demands different musical shades and colours to describe.

Listen — Delius: Act I Prelude (Hassan)
(CHAN 20296 track 1, 0:03-0:54) ℗ 2024 Chandos Records Ltd :

Although he had initially declined the commission, Delius was persuaded to write the incidental music for Hassan by the actor and director Basil Dean in July 1920, for performances he was planning for His Majesty's Theatre in London the following year. Much of the music was drafted within a few weeks, and the score would eventually prove one of the greatest successes of Delius' career. Dean's plans for the project encountered significant obstacles and delays, however, and he had to commission additional music from Delius to cover the production's complex scene changes. The London premiere eventually took place on 20 September 1923 and was a critical sensation.

James Elroy Flecker's (1884-1915) play is a sinuous double-narrative that intertwines the twin stories of the lovelorn but worldly-wise Hassan, confectioner at the court of the cruel and vindictive Caliph Haroun al Rashid, and the young lovers Pervaneh and Rafi, caught up in the aftermath of a failed uprising and condemned to a terrifying and brutally protracted death.

In tone and setting, Flecker's text drew on nineteenth century English translations of One Thousand and One Nights as well as other heavily fictionalized accounts and travel literature. Very much a product of the racial and class-based attitudes of its time, the play revels in imaginary scenes of a despotic Eastern court and its gruesome barbaric practices. Flecker had already died of tuberculosis, aged thirty, when his play had a successful run at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1923.

Listen — Delius: 'We are in old Baghdad' (Hassan Act I)
(CHAN 20296 track 2, 0:37-0:49) ℗ 2024 Chandos Records Ltd :

Much as the play suggests what the tragic Flecker might have gone on to realise, Delius' incidental music was similarly hailed as one of his finest achievements.

Listen — Delius: Ballet 4: General Dance (Hassan Act 2)
(CHAN 20296 track 19, 0:00-0:52) ℗ 2024 Chandos Records Ltd :

The score includes preludes to each of the five acts, interludes, a serenade, fanfares, a four-movement ballet, melodramas and choruses, and the music is consistently atmospheric and harmonically exotic; Middle Eastern sounds of heart-wrenching sweetness meet the Western imagination of sensuality and drama along the medieval Silk Road.

Listen — Delius: Act IV Closing Scene (Hassan)
(CHAN 20296 track 50, 5:33-6:32) ℗ 2024 Chandos Records Ltd :

Performances and recordings of Hassan are not an everyday occurrence so this album is more than welcome, if only for the reason that we have the whole package in superb sound quality and thoroughly informative annotations which, coupled with some truly exhilarating performances, make of this disc a must-buy release. At eighty minutes playing time it is, by today's standards, overtly generous, and I cannot recommend it enough, especially to British music buffs. Absolutely riveting.

Copyright © 25 April 2024 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta



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