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CD Review

Percy Grainger

Grainger Edition, Volume 2
Songs for Baritone

  • Willow Willow
  • Six Dukes Went Afishin'
  • British Waterside
  • The Pretty Maid Milkin' Her Cow
  • The Lost Lady Found
  • Creepin' Jane*
  • Bold William Taylor
  • Four settings from Songs of the North *
  • Six Settings of Rudyard Kipling*
  • Hard Hearted Barb'ra (H)Ellen
  • The Secret of the Sea*
  • Sailor's Chanty*
  • Shallow Brown
* CD premières
Stephen Varcoe, baritone
Penelope Thwaites, piano
Chandos CHAN9503
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Beautiful.

Volume 2 of a projected Chandos "Grainger Edition," aided by the Percy Grainger Society, scores an unqualified success with some of Grainger's songs for baritone. We can group Grainger's song output into miscellaneous originals, songs on poems by Kipling, and folk-song settings, of which the last constitutes by far the majority. The familiarity of some of the titles arises from Grainger's habit of reworking settings for alternate instrumental combinations. The piano-and-voice versions don't necessarily even come first. "Bold William Taylor," for instance, began life in a setting for voice and chamber ensemble (in Grainger's characteristic phrase, "room-music"). On the other hand, I believe "The Lost Lady Found" began in the version here, but it also gets a setting for chorus and chamber orchestra and winds up as the final movement of Grainger's symphonic wind-band masterpiece Lincolnshire Posy.

For Grainger, melody formed the bedrock of a composition. A symphonic argument from thematic cells à la Beethoven or Brahms was alien to his creative inspiration. You won't find sonatas or symphonies in his catalogue. Instead, he either repeats and varies a single tune or tries for an "endless melody" (though not in its strict Wagnerian sense), somewhat similar to the rhapsodies of Delius. Thus, the strength of the melody matters more to Grainger than to most other composers. It drew him both to Grieg and to folk music, and he became one of the leading collectors of British folk tunes. Fortunately, he's also a great melodist himself. The Scottish ballads from A.C. McLeod and Malcolm Lawson's collection Songs of the North may not be the earliest songs on the disc, but they sound like it. The piano parts are capable, but not the mature Grainger's usual astonishing. These and some of the other early songs are no better or worse than most of his contemporaries. Grainger expert and provider of the liner notes Barry Peter Ould, of the Percy Grainger Society, has realized or edited many of them for performance. They remind me a bit of Oley Speaks. On the other hand, Grainger's only about 18 when he writes them.

Still, some of the Kipling settings date from even earlier, and we hear in them much of the audacity and great longing that stamp so much of Grainger's output. Throughout the composer's career, Kipling's works set Grainger's musical imagination spinning. "Lukannon" – from Kipling's "White Seal" in The Second Jungle Book – began as a setting for male chorus (Grainger is 16). The song retains traces of its origins. In chorale style, the seals sing of their deaths at the hands of human hunters. The harmonies – tonal? modal? but absolutely individual – will tear your heart out. "Merciful Town" comes across as far more conventional, and I find it noteworthy for the use Grainger made of it in his early orchestral juvenalia Fisher's Boarding-House, where we see him coming to grips with extended form. "Ride with an Idle Whip" (an epigraph to a story in Kipling's Plain Tales from the Hills) lasts less than thirty seconds, but it's a harmonic thrill ride – tonal, with continually shifting key centers at odds with a stamping rhythm. You have little idea of the tonal anchor and end up in a key not the usual fourth or fifth, but a full minor seventh away from where you began, and he seems to be modulating by thirds, rather than by the usual circle of fifths – something like CEbGBb, rather than the more normal CFBb. "Northern Ballad" comes from The Light That Failed. Grainger expanded the song slightly into a short orchestral piece – also juvenalia – There Were Three Friends. Both the latter and Fisher's Boarding-House appear on volume I (Chandos CHAN9493). "Soldier, Soldier" – like the powerful "Danny Deever" (in John Eliot Gardiner's recent collection on Philips 446657-2) – comes from Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads. If not quite as hair-raising as "Deever," still "Soldier, Soldier" shares some of the harmonic instability and rhythmic vigor of the other.

The mature folk-song settings glitter like strange jewels. "Willow Willow" holds the distinction of Grainger's first setting of a traditional tune. I believe Varcoe sings the revision of 1912. Grainger also arranged it for voice and "room-music" (chamber ensemble). The harmonic oddities of the piece come about largely from the willful inner lines of the piano part. Pianist Penelope Thwaites draws these out superbly. "Six Dukes Went Afishin" – a Grainger favorite – combines a lovely melody with a grotesque subject – the six fishing dukes find a seventh dead in the water, embalm, and bury him. The oddity of subject and melodic beauty continues in "Creepin' Jane," an ode to an unlikely race-horse winner. The piano part is a quiet model of delicate discretion and subtle variation – which conveys the tenderness of the singer toward the little mare. "The Pretty Maid Milkin' Her Cow" contains an odd scale fragment in the piano accompaniment (one that Britten appropriated for his arrangement of "I Will Give My Love an Apple"). Even odder is the independence of piano and voice. They seem to ignore each other, as if we were set among two people humming two completely different things.

In "Hard-Hearted Barb'ra (H)Ellen," "British Waterside," "The Lost Lady Found," "Bold William Taylor," and "Shallow Brown" we hear Grainger singing in the way most characteristic of him – some of the best things he ever wrote. "Barb'ra (H)Ellen," of course, varies the better-known "Barbara Allen." Grainger tries for several things at once in an essentially strophic song. First, he shatters the basic "sweet" harmony of the song with harsh dissonances at unexpected, but dramatically appropriate moments. Second, Grainger pads the regular pulse with "extra" beats, to convey the rhythmic freedom of the rustic folk-singer – the basic meter may even be 5/8 (I've not seen the score). Third, the accompaniment amounts to a study in bell sonorities, from light peals, to heavy tolling (as the true love dies), to triumphant ringing as the lovers meet in the hereafter (represented by a twining rose-bud and green brier). In "British Waterside," we meet the manic side of Grainger's musical personality, that part of him that took stairs entire landings at a time. The piano becomes a drum-and-bugle corps, complete with snare-drum rhythms.

"The Lost Lady Found" must have pleased Grainger enormously – with good reason – since he made at least three versions of the basic setting. Constant Lambert once passed the notorious comment that the only thing you can do to vary a folk tune is to play it louder – inaccurate (and it applies just as much to most of Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin as well), but it does point up the problem a composer faces when working with strophic material. Against the regularity of the tune, Grainger comes up with a cornucopia of contrasting accompanying figures, culminating in another bell-ringing tune so powerful it takes over from the original. "Bold William Taylor" – a British version of the "Frankie and Johnny" story – does the same, but adds an element of dramatic characterization. It ends with a literal slam, and I'd love to know how they brought it off. The chanty "Shallow Brown" – unforgettable if you hear it once – is better known in its choral-cum-soloist chamber version (I don't know which came first). There it thrums like a giant guitar. Here, Grainger provides a study in tremolo. The piano part shimmers and shakes and swells like the sea. It tells of the parting of two lovers, in the days before jet travel, when going away usually meant going away for good. Grainger writes one of his most moving works.

Stephen Varcoe's nothing less than a marvel. His voice doesn't have either the size or the beauty of, say, Bryn Terfel's, but he sings Lieder better. The intonation is dead-on true, the tone clear, the diction immaculate. He phrases sound as supple as a great pop singer, like Bennett, Sinatra, Tormé, or Astaire. He has no annoying vocal mannerisms to snatch attention from the music. He sings superbly even in dialect. Even more wonderful, he has solved the chief problem of a singer of songs: that of "naturalness." He communicates. He knows what the texts are about and can convey them to the listener. He's a singing story-teller. I'd love to hear a Winterreise from him, or a Fauré recital.

Penelope Thwaites has received great acclaim as a Grainger specialist and deserves every bit of it. She may be the best accompanist I've heard since Gerald Moore – a wide range of color, dramatically suitable to the text, and so at one with the singer – I suspect Vulcan mind-meld here – that you'd swear there was only a single performer – like a folk singer picking his own guitar. This entire enterprise rises beyond the level of song recital to real chamber music.

Chandos sound is its usual elegant. I can't recommend this CD highly enough.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz