Summary for the Busy Executive: Medium-rare and well done.
After years of neglect, Grainger's music seems finally to come into its own. For those of you drawn to British music, give Grainger a try. He sounds like nobody else, and his music alternately jumps with raw physical energy and pines with great longing and sweetness. He packs his pieces full of surprises. Very few go on longer than 6 minutes, so if you don't like a work, something else will come along shortly. Some of the works repeat other discs, but a good number of pieces count as discoveries certainly to me. Even some of the repeats appear here in alternate versions (Grainger almost obsessively re-arranged his own work for various combinations). The major find on the program has to be the first complete recording of Grainger's cycle from The Jungle Book.
A lot of history, political and literary, has swept under the bridge since Kipling won his Nobel Prize. We may find it difficult to understand his once-considerable hold on the English-speaking world. The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, some selected quotes, and a few poems are the viable shards currently remaining in his present reputation. What seems to us quaint, however, struck Kipling's contemporaries as harsh and modern. Kipling's work seemed to draw both the tender and the violent parts of Grainger's personality (the composer practiced flagellation, among other things). Grainger himself said that the greatest effect of discord was in a setting of "sweetness," which shows how closely the two were bound up in him. Just as important to Grainger was Kipling as a figure of national and ethnic jingoism. Despite an Australian birth and a final American citizenship, Grainger thought of himself as a British and "Nordic" artist. He was drawn to Scandinavian women and finally married a Dane. He repeatedly declared his allegiance to the "blue-eyed races" and his fondness for "blue-eyed English," the latter his preference for coining words from Germanic, rather than Latinate roots. Chamber music thus becomes "room-music," "crescendo molto" "louden lots." The linguistic part has its quirky charm, but the rest gives off a whiff of the faintly unpalatable, particularly in light of subsequent twentieth-century history. Still, Grainger was probably not personally vicious in this regard, and he did champion the work of Ellington and Gershwin.
Grainger, a composer of many instrumental works, including his "imaginary ballet," The Warriors, considered himself primarily a choral composer and his favorite work in the genre his Jungle Book cycle, here recorded for the first time in its entirety, so this CD has great importance for Grainger fans. I've heard some pieces before, but I'm mad for Grainger's music and seek it out. Grainger did not write all eleven parts in one go but produced them over a span of nearly fifty years. In fact, the first settings come from his teens. Like most of Grainger, the cycle's a bit of a grab-bag. For me, the individual pieces never quite coalesce as a cycle, but that impression could well arise from the order in which they are performed here. The forces vary from piece to piece – from a cappella male choir to dramatic scenas ("The Only Son," for example) with soloists, large instrumental ensembles, and chorus – and some parts exist in several arrangements, most bearing the mark of an individual, virtuosic orchestrator. Grainger maven Barry Peter Ould thoughtfully provides liner notes that include the instrumentation used for each track. Beware, however. Not all the arrangements come from Grainger's pen, and those that don't – although well-crafted – lack Grainger's characteristic daffy audacity. Grainger's music, if nothing else, comes unmistakably from a very unusual musical mind.
"Good-Bye to Love" represents Grainger at his most sentimental. He wrote it originally as a piano miniature for his former mistress on the occasion of her marriage to someone else. The arrangement by Allan Gibbs – for tenor soloist, 6-part chorus, strings, and harp – lays an additional heavy dollop of treacle over everything, supplying words taken from Grainger's comments on the piece (Grainger's dead, of course, and can't defend his work from well-intentioned tampering) and, generally speaking, tarting up a modest original. The graceful turns on the solo piano become plummy swoops and scoops in the chorus and harp – Liberace music. Fortunately, this remains the only significant blemish (and a mere four minutes, at that).on the program.
"Shallow Brown" makes yet another appearance on a recent CD, and I can't seem to get enough of it. It tells the story of a friend about to go "away accrost the ocean," at a time before convenient and mostly safe transportation when "going away" meant "going away for good," one way or another. Its structure is bone-simple: solo lines alternating with choral refrain. Grainger stretches it out to over six minutes and creates a dramatic lament that moves you to the pain and, in a funny way, the nurture of sorrow. The orchestra sounds like a mandolin symphony, full of gigantic thrumming. In addition to choir and soloist, the instrumental group calls for four guitars, two mandolas, two mandolins, two ukuleles, strings and piano usually in tremolo, saturating the texture with an intense shimmer. Grainger also tosses in piccolo, three clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, two alto saxophones, and French horn, with harmonium as a fill-in color. It's all a Turner seascape, with the strumming instruments imitating the constant lap of wind and wave and the woodwinds providing the cries of the wild birds. I consider Layton's and David Wilson-Johnson's performance the finest on this CD – indeed, one of the work's best on record, fully equal to Britten's and John Shirley-Quirk's classic account – searingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.
As a choral composer, Grainger puts heavy demands on his singers, especially on their ability to stay in tune from chord to chord, often in pretty thick textures. In "The Beaches of Lukannon" – here sung in a version for mixed chorus, strings, and harmonium – he makes the male choir take the first verse a cappella through some very tricky chord changes before he brings in the instruments, and the last chord of the men mostly matches the first chord of the ensemble (I hear a shift from major to minor, but that's it). Addicted to new orchestral colors, he also calls for unusual vocal colors: "yelps" in "Hunting-Song of the Seeonee Pack" to imitate a wolf pack; more wolf-baying in "Red Dog." The Brits seem to grow wonderful vocal ensembles like mushrooms. Their general standard – of tone, blend, intonation, diction, and all-round musicianship – I consider the highest in the world, although individual groups from other places may surpass a particular British choir. Polyphony meets the highest standards of British choirs. Grainger doesn't make things easy for them. His harmonic language is, to put it mildly, fluid, and, as I say, he likes rich (or "thick," depending on your fondness for it) textures. The ensemble runs the danger of creating a kind of harmonic haze rather than the sharply-defined chord progressions Grainger constructs. Grainger usually builds in some sort of harmonic conflict, not necessarily related to the level of dissonance. Sometimes he side-slips into distant keys through the most tenuous links, analogous (though not identical) to Prokofieff, as in the lovely and enigmatic "Morning Song in the Jungle." At other times, he makes the "home" tonality ambiguous – you seem to have your choice among two or three keys, also a feature of "Morning Song." These effects "destabilize" the music without calling attention to themselves. Grainger makes them relevant to the emotional point of the piece – usually the mystery of "primitive" nature or the evanescence of life.
Grainger's The Jungle Book, despite its idiosyncrasies, captures the essence of Kipling at his best. It sings with great sympathy for the victims of civilized man and with blazing energy of nature "red in tooth and claw." However, overall the cycle presents the impression of things passing away. Here, one sees the point of Grainger's view of his music as a "pilgrimage of sorrows."
Layton gives us a generous program. In addition to the cycle, we have more folk-song and Kipling settings. My favorites include "Died for Love," for soprano and string trio, in which a counter-melody derived from the final line of the tune, runs rhythmically against the folk-song's course; it lasts just over a minute. Libby Crabtree has a small, slightly constricted voice, but it's affecting in this folk tune, recalling a genuine folk singer. "Six Dukes Went Afishin'," normally found in its piano-vocal arrangement, is heard in Grainger's setting for mixed voices. It's an odd work, about six dukes who find the body of a seventh murdered in the stream, and goes on to talk of such things as embalming. The music is restrained and beautiful. Peter Pears and Britten did a classic "Willow, Willow" for their landmark CD in the version for tenor, solo violin, strings, and harp, also done here. Layton's tenor, John Mark Ainsley, has a fresher voice than Pears's, but he's not as accomplished a singer. In particular, he has difficulty with the short "i" sound. Thus, "Willow, willow" becomes "Wee-low, wee-low," a bit annoying, since the phrase repeats so many times. Grainger's setting of Kipling's "Recessional" sounds a cross between Protestant hymnody and Vaughan Williams (not necessarily incompatible), with the characteristic Grainger ambiguity of key center.
Overall, Gardiner seems to invest more energy in his recent Philips program (Philips 446657-2) and gets a bigger payoff than Layton. However, that comparison aside, Layton and Polyphony do a fine job with more essentially new repertoire. Hyperion's sound doesn't call attention to itself, one way or the other.
Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz