Classical: On The Air

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The Independent Culture
WHAT A difference a presenter of informed partisanship can make to a series such as Composer of the Week. Over the last few days, the familiar Radio 3 tones of Paul Guinery have taken on a positively passionate urgency in the cause of Frederick Delius. Less familiar works, such as the violin and piano sonatas, are not just shapeless rhapsodies but structures generated by their own idiosyncratic processes, Guinery has argued, programming all four of them to prove it. But the most remarkable token of his enthusiasm turned up in Tuesday's edition, with a specially made recording by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Vernon Handley of a substantial score from Delius's maturity which - incredibly, at so late a date - had never been performed before.

Or, at any rate, not all of it. Delius worked on A Poem of Life and Love during the First World War, but was overtaken by the blindness and paralysis of his final years before he could revise it for publication and performance. Only in 1929, when he acquired an amanuensis in the young Eric Fenby, was he able to resume composing by dictation - extracting passages from the 18-minute span of A Poem of Life and Love, providing new links and a different beginning and ending, and publishing the 10-minute result as A Song of Summer. If this suggests a process of distillation, the opportunity to hear one score after the other on Tuesday revealed a far more radical transformation - as if you were listening to two quite different works, which happened to share some of the same material.

Where the opening of A Song of Summer is a serene seascape, A Poem of Life and Love has a longer, darkly groping introduction. There follows an Allegro conspicuously echoing the style of his far earlier tone-poem Paris - perhaps for suppressed narrative reasons - and a central section of heroic landscape evocations and big climaxes, little of which survives in the more idyllic later score. As Delius left it, A Poem of Life and Love is hardly a masterpiece, but its emergence fills a significant gap in his evolution and offers a fascinating insight into his creative process. Its recording and presentation also remind us that, in a musical environment that is increasingly dominated by the market, there are certain culturally vital services that Radio 3 alone is able to offer.

Half an hour after the Delius premiere, Radio 4 offered its own variation on life and love in the first of a new series entitled The Musical Side of the Family. This featured the biographer Claire Tomalin recalling her mother, Muriel Herbert - a gifted pianist and song composer who studied at the Royal College of Music with Stanford, pleased Joyce and Yeats with her settings of their poems, and then - after the all-too-familiar pattern - lost her creative impetus in marriage and child-rearing.

A selection of her songs, specially recorded for the programme by the baritone Richard Lloyd-Morgan, suggested an accomplished, if not overly original, style pitched somewhere between the Edwardian balladry of Roger Quilter (who encouraged her) and the more sparely pastoral Gerald Finzi.

Tomalin's purpose, however, was not to plead for a critical reappraisal, but to convey the primal experience of absorbing this music at her mother's knee. Though apparently recorded impromptu, every carefully chosen phrase of her reminiscences came fraught with complex feeling: affection, sadness, a certain guilt perhaps, such as the self-realised tend to feel about parents who were prevented from fulfilling comparable gifts. I found this programme extraordinarily touching.

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