The history of British music reads rather like the old joke about buses: there was no composer of note in the two hundred years after Purcell, and then three came along at once. Whilst Elgar and Vaughan Williams have become household names, the third composer who came along at the end of the nineteenth century has been relegated to the dusty shelves of musical history. Frederick Delius was largely self-taught as a composer; his enigmatic music owes relatively little to the great works of the Western canon and so is often criticized for a lack of perceivable structure. The Philharmonia’s celebration of his birth attempted to elucidate the mysteries of the music, using much-loved works by Elgar and Vaughan Williams in order to emphasise similarities of harmony and instrumentation that can be found between Delius and his contemporaries.

Sir Andrew Davis,  ©  Dario Acosta Photography
Sir Andrew Davis,
© Dario Acosta Photography

Conductor Sir Andrew Davis proved to be close to ideal in his role as Delius salesman, demonstrating his particular affinity with English music of the period. Davis has a superb conception of orchestral colouring, essential for ensuring that the characteristic sumptuous harmony never becomes aimless, and he also has a technique which generally allows him to shape phrases wonderfully, whilst still retaining clarity.

Davis was joined by another ideal choice, the Philharmonia’s own concertmaster Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, for Vaughan Williams' popular The Lark Ascending. This avian sketch, which creates such an atmosphere of ease and freedom, is in fact remarkably difficult to pull off; those long, soaring phrases can all too easily lose shape and become meaningless. Visontay’s performance was the very opposite: his superlative technique allowed him to spin endlessly through the phrases, drawing an enormous range of colour from his violin whilst never becoming inaudible.

Having softened the audience with such a glorious opening, the stage was reset for Delius’ Cello Concerto, with soloist Julian Lloyd Webber. The concerto is written as one long movement – perhaps one very long movement, to Delius’ detractors – and supplies plenty of challenges for the soloist to surmount, not least of which is maintaining the audience’s interest throughout twenty-odd minutes of nearly continuous cello playing. Lloyd Webber provided a sensitive reading of the concerto and clearly remained aware of Delius’ intention to make the solo voice more integrated with the orchestra than is usual; however, this awareness led to the few moments of drama within the piece lacking the vigour which would have contrasted well with the softer music.

If the Cello Concerto remains relatively obscure, Delius’ Brigg Fair is, while still slightly obscure, nonetheless his best-known work. The piece is based on an English folk-song, which recurs throughout with differing accompaniment and moods. Delius’ interest in Impressionist paintings is obvious in the work: the changes of colour and atmosphere occur with as much warning as changes to the British weather, and must be observed minutely in order to provide interest. The Philharmonia's performance could be used as a masterclass in observing these nuances of the score, aided by Davis' ability to pick out the gems which lie buried under the music.

Talking of gems, the concert finished with Elgar’s Enigma Variations, an old friend for both audience and conductor. Despite the rather slow tempo Davis chose for the opening, the piece blossomed into a sprightly creation full of charm and personality, bombastic in all the right places. The Philharmonia is arguably the perfect orchestra for Elgar’s showstopper: its star players have the ability to inject a piece with character like no other, whilst the strong ensemble of the entire group allows conductors and soloists the liberty to take risks. We left having fallen in love with Enigma all over again, and perhaps having marked Delius down as a composer for whom it might well be worthwhile acquiring a taste.

Delius’s 150th birthdayHelen Fraser reviews Sir Andrew Davis and the Philharmonia in a celebration of English music at the RFH.3