Many orchestras have instituted their own record labels recently, usually in order to issue live recordings of characteristic repertoire. The Hallé’s latest such release is rather special—a live CD of relatively unfamiliar English music, all concerned with the Northern Spring. Not that this music deserves to be as unfamiliar as it is: the few Bax and Delius pieces that have reached the broader listening public are very popular indeed, and beyond a few miniatures, Bridge is at least known as Britten’s teacher. But there is more to all three composers than Tintagel, or the Walk to the Paradise Garden or Cherry Ripe. Bax’s huge ‘symphony’, Spring Fire had the indignity of remaining unperformed until 1971, eighteen years after the composer’s death, when the largely amateur Kensington Symphony Orchestra gave its première—I was there, and it did not really do the piece justice. Since then a Chandos recording of the work has appeared (CHAN8464), but I do prefer this new Hallé release for its vividness, breadth, and charm. Spring Fire is a relatively early work, written when Bax was about thirty, and it has great tunes and almost French-sounding brilliant orchestration; at over 30 minutes it is a truly magnificent declaration of energetic maturity.
If there is a work of Delius that resembles Spring Fire, it is his North Country Sketches, a Debussian assemblage of four large sections that, until now, I had not even considered as separable. And yet, here it is, the fourth movement, the March of Spring, presented as a free-standing piece by the Hallé. I have always regarded the Sketches as Delius finest achievement, and even alone, March of Spring is magnificent, a fine combination of brooding and exultance. It is a shame that the whole set could not be included but presumably they are insufficiently vernal.
The concluding work is Frank Bridge’s glorious Enter Spring; uncharacteristically upbeat, this is one of those nature-paeans that radiates a particularly English sensibility, at once both innocent and earthy. The performance is superbly robust.
All these works are conducted with flair, insight and precision by Sir Mark Elder. The CD is completed by a real Delius rarity, the Idylle de Printemps: programmatically appropriate doubtless but a little unmemorable, especially in the company of such outstanding masterworks.