Delius and His Circle
Paul Guinery
7.5/10

Listening to this CD is like taking a holiday in another century. Although Vaughan Williams and Butterworth are usually referred to as the English pastoralists, the atmosphere of rusticity that pervades the music of Delius and his circle, as represented on this CD, is as homespun as anything in those composers. A healthy chunk of the disc is given over to Delius’ modest solo piano output, notably the Three Preludes and the very unidiomatic Dance for Harpsichord. There have not been many recordings of these charming pieces, and this new version, played by Delius specialist Paul Guinery is very welcome. Guinery manages to reach the essence of these works, neither indulging in their overripeness nor constraining their reverie. After the dreamy Delius, Guinery allows his playing to focus somewhat in four rather chintzy works by Quilter, much better known for his songs. Undoubtedly charming, but also rather dated, these works exude the feel of an entirely lost world; listening to them is like browsing all those second-hand books of flowery thirties poetry that one finds in op-shops—a secret pleasure. But when hearing his rather bloodless Rosamund it is salutary to recall Frank Bridge’s Rosemary, a wholly more compelling work.

Cyril Scott’s Lotus land is quite another matter. Scott was a composer of real significance, only recently being rediscovered after a long period of neglect, and hearing his visionary music amongst the homelinesses of the rest of this program is rather startling. Guinery plays this languid, sexy piece with the appropriate sense of decadence. Frederic Austin’sthe Enchanted Palace seemed oddly familiar, mainly I suspect because it is confected from elements reminiscent of other composer’s styles; nonetheless it is not trivial music, and enticed me in to its nostalgic world. Bax’s wan Maiden with a daffodil was written for pianist Harriet Cohen—she of the Bach book—in first lust, and I have to admit to wondering how impressed she really was with this rather passive effort.

I know it’s blasphemy but I find Percy Grainger prone to a banal grandiloquence. Pianists undoubtedly like to play his music because of its extremely well-wrought—one might as readily say over-wrought—textures, but the Merry King, which Guinery certainly plays marvellously well, makes my skin crawl with its cheesy overtones of empire. In his liner notes Guinery describes Ernest Moeran’s three pieces as “some of the finest examples of English piano music on this disc”. They are beautifully-honed improvisatory miniatures, and inhabit the same provincial expressive world as the music of Delius, or Moeran’s drinking-chum Warlock—in fact, they put me strongly in mind of that other indefatigably English spirit, John Ireland. Norman O’Neill, although a great friend of Delius, wrote music of inescapable derivativeness, and his little Carillon recorded here, strikes mainly because of all the other pieces it invokes without quite equalling. Fortunately, the subsequent, delightful, Five folk-song preludes by Warlock gently but surely erase its memory. Warlock’s music is a strange mix of testosterone and nostalgia that noone else has ever quite matched—his two most famous pieces are probably the genteel Capriol Suite and the ebullient drinking song Roister Doister. Sure enough, these five miniatures have exactly that conjoint character: melancholy but muscular. Guinery completes this intensely satisfying seventy-odd-minute sojourn in the past with a slightly galumphing, Chabrier-esque, piece, Mere, by Henry Balfour Gardiner, another largely overlooked composer who was by all accounts Delius’ closest—and most well-heeled?—friend.

As it will be gathered, despite my caveats, I truly relished this CD. Guinery plays this music with real understanding and dedication, without conceding its occasional inconsequentiality. My only small quibble is the limitedness of the recorded piano tone, which robs the music of a certain occasional grandeur. I would also have liked some music by the shadowy Bernard van Dieren to have been included; but then, although his music was influenced by Delius, he was more a denizen of the Warlock circle.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.