I don’t recall ever having seen this done before: coupling all three of Delius’ concertos for string instruments on a single CD. But it makes perfect sense, both programmatically and musically. The three works were written in the order they appear on this disc—the Double Concerto, for violin and cello (1915-6), Violin Concerto (1916), and Cello Concerto (1920-1); his only other Concerto, for piano, long precedes these works, being written initially in 1904 and revised into a less traditional and more bravura form in 1907. The three string concertos share the core feature of being cast as single movements, with a great deal of episodic rhapsodising. This feature, the seeming waywardness of the music, has led to a degree of critical hesitancy: all three works have been regarded as incoherent, even rambling, and among Delius’s less successful works. But such opinions reflect a simplistic view of musical unfolding: Delius is not concerned with purely linear development, his musical logic operates via thematic and contextual transformation—he is much more interested in the territory and all its subtleties than the simple map. In fact, the very same elements are viewed positively in declaredly rhapsodic works, like Sea Drift or Song of the High Hills; it is in my view quite an achievement to have produced such persuasive concertos without recourse to pre-existing formal templates.
The three concertos are quite different in idiom, but similar in their single-mindedness: the Double Concerto treats the soloists consistently as embellishers of the predominant orchestral texture; the Violin Concerto is couched in a highly rhetoricised melodic language, with the solo violin constantly and mesmerically dominant; the Cello Concerto presents a more equal balance between soloist and orchestra, but the solo line is notably more propulsive, giving the work more sense of momentum than its predecessors—towards the end of this work Delius’ characteristic harmony starts to emerge, marking it feel transitional to his poignant late pieces. Of the three string concertos, I have always best liked the rather neglected Double Concerto; it is one of his most exquisitely poised and undramatic works, and I find the actual material more defined and memorable than in the subsequent concertos. But that is probably to miss the point; each successive concerto is more masterly in subsuming the local melodic detail into a panoramic structure, elusive but indivisible. It is informative to remember the way that Delius converted the earlier, fairly traditional, Piano Concerto into a work more like these later concertos—it is a refining, not a slackening, of his musical language.
The performances, by Tasmin Little and Paul Watkins are excellent, catching the inimitable sense of moment-to-moment invention that is so characteristically Delian. I can’t decide whether it is a bad thing or not to listen to all concertos consecutively; on the one hand they initially strike one as inhabiting very similar soundworlds, but on the other, that is the best way to register the subtle differences that distinguish the three works. All I can say is: try this lovely CD and decide foryourselves.