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CD Review

Percy Grainger

Chandos 9493

The Grainger Edition, Volume 1
Orchestral Works

  • "The Duke of Marlborough" Fanfare
  • Colonial Song
  • English Dance
  • Shepherd's Hey
  • There Were Three Friends
  • Fisher's Boarding-House
  • We Were Dreamers
  • Harvest Hymn
  • Blithe Bells
  • Walking Tune (Symphonic wind band version)
  • Suite: In a Nutshell
  • Green Bushes
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN9493
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Summary for the Busy Executive: High times and misdemeanors.

Volume 1 of a projected Chandos "Grainger Edition," aided by the Percy Grainger Society, focuses on orchestral works (at least 6 volumes of the edition are currently available – orchestral, songs, choral music, and so on). Grainger seems finally to be coming into his own after years as, at best, a "pops" composer. Unfortunately, audiences tended to hear the same things over and over. Even so, Grainger had the highly influential advocacy of Britten, even though the latter at times seemed to use him as a cudgel with which to beat Vaughan Williams. Nevertheless, Britten's advocacy had practical, beneficial consequences with his recording from the late Sixties of some of Grainger's folk-song settings and original compositions – and not a "Country Gardens" in the lot. Listeners began to perceive the Grainger catalogue differently. Each new work revealed an astonishingly brilliant musical mind, independent almost to the point of solipsism. Most of Grainger's work lasts less than six minutes, and he wrote nothing in the prestige genres of symphony, concerto, string quartet, sonata, and opera – for many the hallmark of greatness. How can we put a miniaturist like Grainger in elevated company?

I believe most people have little idea what exactly a composer does or the kinds of effort involved and thus get led to conclusions that they wouldn't hold for other arts. We should ask whether in general genre matters. Do we value a bad epic over a great lyric because of genre? Probably not, but let's ask the harder question: all other things being equal, do we value a great epic over a great lyric, simply because we value epic over lyric? I don't know about others, but I find such an attitude alien. To me, the epic poet and the lyric poet need different skills. The epic poet needs to tell a long story well. The lyric poet burns hotter, for a shorter time, and sings. The symphonist may run a longer race, but at times, he has to hold back. The miniaturist must pack every note with maximum intensity, make each phrase and harmonic turn count. Homer may sometimes nod, but Housman can't ever afford to.

Someone once asked the satirical novelist Evelyn Waugh whom he regarded as the Great Living Novelist. Waugh, perfectly serious, offered P.G. Wodehouse. He saw the incredulity on the interviewer's face and pointed out that there were at least three astonishing images on any page of Wodehouse. I don't know who the Greatest Composer of the Century is. The question doesn't really compute for me, since one must consider a lot of really good ones. I guess, given our cultural biases, Grainger wouldn't garner many nominations, but – wow! – he's good. As in Wodehouse, you seem to find at least three astonishing things every five measures.

The program disappoints slightly. Most of the works here have had several recordings. "English Dance," "There Were Three Friends," "Fisher's Boarding House," and "We Were Dreamers" comprise the pieces new to me. Hickox shows little of the repertory risk-taking seen in Britten's classic recording or in Gardiner's recent CD, but since this is merely the first volume in a series, we have something to look forward to.

I consider Hickox a really superior conductor – the successor in British repertoire to the great Sir Adrian Boult – with wonderful recordings (especially of music by Vaughan Williams) to his credit, even though his career stands in the shade of Rattle and Gardiner. But not even Boult did all British music well. I think Grainger's manic musical personality – which seemed to faithfully mirror his psyche – a bit too much for Hickox. The performances overall are fine. They're smooth but not all that energetic, and energy defines Grainger.

"'The Duke of Marlborough' Fanfare" opens with solo horn (or is it trombone?), quiet as moonlight, and you might at first anticipate Romantic nocturnal reverie. But little strands of melody and imitation begin to coalesce, and Grainger ends in your face, with raucous chords from the entire brass section. Hickox does fine with the first part, but doesn't fully commit to the second.

I've heard and read many conflicting things about "Colonial Song," Grainger's love song to Australia. I can't for sure say what's true. Some call it a pre-existent Australian song. Others (and Grainger) say the tune's an original, and the different sides should give you some idea of its melodic quality. Grainger himself thought the melody Brahmsian. Echoes of it appear in other Grainger works. At any rate, it's one of his most sheerly beautiful – a melody almost as good as "Shenandoah," piquantly harmonized and orchestrated. Hickox does his best work of the CD here, I believe in large part because its restrained yearning suits him.

I'd never heard "English Dance" before this CD, and I've collected a lot of Grainger. Fauré admired it (and a work more unlike Fauré's I can't imagine): "It's as if the total population were a-dancing." Grainger subtitled the piece "A Tally of English Energy," and it just about defines "bustling." It's also roughly nine minutes long, making it one of Grainger's most sustained works. The length poses problems to performance, for the conductor must find the points of valid rhetorical relaxation before the audience wears out, without losing the animal spirits. That energy comes through, despite the smoothness of Hickox's performance. This may be the earliest piece in which we hear Grainger's mature voice (although he revised it as late as 1926, the version heard here), and he finished it before the age of twenty.

"Shepherd's Hey" reveals some of Grainger's compositional habits and procedures. A four-measure phrase repeats throughout. Along the way, increasingly tangential tunes and more rhythmic tunes are set against the melodic ground, in ever-changing colors, until the full orchestra bursts forth with the original phrase. A good performance, but not as electrifying as Britten's. We ought to talk a bit about Grainger's very individual orchestration. At the time he comes up with it, composers seem to learn from Rimsky, Wagner, or (a little later) Ravel and Stravinsky. Grainger uses almost none of these sources. I come closest to describing what goes on by saying that the orchestra balances topsy-turvy. Instead of, say, a basis of strings enlivened by winds or the separation and opposition of choirs, we find winds and brass on equal footing with strings and lots of mixing of unusual combinations. Add to this a fascination with tuned percussion – including novel mixtures of piano, celesta, marimba, glockenspiel, and so on (Grainger had heard a gamelan orchestra at the Paris International Exposition in 1900 – also to influence Debussy and Ravel) – and a tendency to spotlight violins as rustic fiddles, rather than as the chief singer of the orchestra. Grainger rescored many of his works again and again. He also seriously experimented in what he called "elastic scoring" – setting down a basic core of instruments (perhaps three or four) and allowing whatever instruments are handy to take the extra lines. What a great idea, and he brought it off time after time.

"There Were Three Friends," "Fisher's Boarding-House," and "We Were Dreamers" come from Grainger's attraction to the works of Rudyard Kipling. Both Kipling's vigor and his sentimentality drew Grainger, but it's a little hard for us to fathom Kipling's enormous influence in his own day. Indeed, if you read memoirs, essays, or biographies of the writers of the English fin de siècle, you hear all sorts of alarms raised among the intelligentsia about the hold of Kipling. Indeed, he won the Nobel Prize. However, British lit moved another way, into the psychological rather than the colonial interior, and the serious reading public seems to have moved with it. At any rate, this trio comes from Grainger's very early period, the composer no older than seventeen. "There Were Three Friends" shows signs of having begun in a song, with its lack of melisma and regular barring. It lasts no longer than two minutes, but we already hear an astonishing assurance in handling a large orchestra. "Fisher's Boarding House" stretches to over six minutes and incorporates a theme from "There Were Three Friends." It lacks a bit of focus and the kaleidoscopic changes in instrumentation we get in the mature Grainger. "We Were Dreamers," on the other hand, shows the beginnings of Grainger's interest in continually-changing ensemble color. Grainger hasn't reached his very individual sounds yet, but it represents a step. Despite the title, it doesn't swoop and swoon. It moves fairly purposefully – moderato – perhaps this is as subdued as Grainger ever got.

Grainger loved to arrange other composers' music. In fact, a performer could probably devote an entire CD just to this part of his catalogue. "Blithe Bells" doesn't quite fall into this category, however. Grainger described it as a "free ramble" (rhapsody or fantasia) on the Bach tune known in English as "Sheep may safely graze." The piece impresses the ear almost immediately with its bell sounds, tuned in thirds. Why bells and Bach? Grainger believed that the strain in thirds represented sheep bells, also tuned in thirds. The wind writing, also unusual for a classical composer, reminds one of "sweet" dance music, like Whiteman or, at its hokiest, Guy Lombardo. However, I must add that Grainger's winds in the chorale theme give the piece a slight astringency. Anyway, after an exposition of Bach's first period, Grainger is off, more or less on his own, refracting Bach through his highly individual lens. Even his sense of counterpoint differs – much closer to the notion of Ivesian "simultaneity" than Bach's harmonically-functional brand.

"In a Nutshell" collects individual pieces Grainger wrote from 1905-1916. It opens with "Arrival Platform Humlet," which Grainger described as something one might hum waiting for a train. While I can quite believe that he hummed it (and it may have its origins in just such an experience), it jumps all over the place, in spots nearly without key or in several keys at once, with a strong scent of North Africa. The fact that it's almost completely monophonic and scored for full orchestra shows again Grainger's wonderful instrumental imagination, essentially a jaw-dropping display of unusual instrumental combinations. "Gay but wistful" bears a family resemblance (particularly in its rhythm and several cadential figures) to Grainger's delightful and better-known "Children's March: Over the Hills and Far Away." Yet it remains a valid piece in its own right. "Wistful" describes it rather well. About as long as the rest of the suite put together, the most extended movement, "Pastoral," shows Grainger's essentially Delian take on that movement in Modern British music. Again, the orchestration – particularly the tuned percussion – stands out. If you listen closely, you might even hear sheep bells in the background. This movement yearns for I don't know what, but it's powerful, again with Ivesian simultaneities. However, I doubt whether at this point, Grainger had heard any Ives. To the writer of the liner notes, Barry Peter Ould, it seems "a disturbing vision of nature quite alien to the accepted views of pastoralism." Emotionally, it certainly stands a bit off from Delius's pantheistic rapture. Hickox's performance is probably the standout on the disc. The suite ends with vigorous "The Gum-Suckers' March" ("gum-suckers": soldiers from the Australian state of Victoria, who chewed eucalyptus leaves to stave off thirst and dehydration), which blows away any lingering funk. It shares a theme with the "Colonial Song," but the theme here simply relaxes slightly the generally upbeat character of the work, rather than expresses heartfelt longing.

Ould describes "Green Bushes" as a passacaglia. "This setting was the first time a British folk-song had been treated in the passacaglia form, an innovation that Grainger avers led Delius to write his Brigg Fair and Dance Rhapsodies in a similar way." It may very well adhere to the strict dictionary definition of passacaglia, but that doesn't account for its considerable interest. Essentially, Grainger repeats an 8-bar phrase, non-modulating for over eight minutes – something he does in many other pieces – keeping the listener with a sure narrative sense and bounding rhythm, and piling on one brilliant counter-melody after another in a glittering orchestra. It's a musical version of "Can You Top This?" I love the work.

Despite my nitpicks, I urge you to explore this CD. At its best, it's wonderful.

Sound is Chandos' usual elegant.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet