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CD Review

Percy Grainger

Grainger Edition Volume 9
Works for Chorus and Orchestra 3

  • Mock Morris
  • The Power of Love ^
  • Died for Love ^
  • Love Verses from "The Song of Solomon"
  • Shepherd's Hey!
  • Early One Morning ^
  • The Three Ravens
  • Scherzo*
  • Youthful Rapture
  • Random Round (Set version) *
  • The Merry King ^
  • O Gin I Were Where Gadie Rins *
  • Skye Boat Song
  • Danny Deever ^
  • Irish Tune from County Derry (1952) ^
  • Dollar and a Half a Day
  • Molly on the Shore
* première recording
^ première recording in this version
Susan Gritton, soprano
Pamela Helen Stephen, mezzo-soprano
Mark Tucker, tenor
Stephen Varcoe, baritone
Tim Hugh, cello
Joyful Company of Singers
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN9653 62:34
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Prepare to be amazed.

The CD's title slightly misleads. Not all of these pieces are for chorus and orchestra. Some are for orchestra alone. Nevertheless, the CD gives us Grainger at his most characteristic. Grainger always considered himself primarily a choral composer who occasionally dabbled in short works for orchestra and chamber ensemble. For far too long, almost everybody dismissed Grainger as a lightweight, but, happily, that seems about to change. For one thing, more works have come to light and, more importantly, to performance and recording. Chandos' Grainger Edition counts, in my opinion, as one of the most significant projects in British music. The thorough scholarship, the unfailingly terrific performances, and the comprehensiveness of the project have all begun to fill in our portrait of Grainger. Pioneers like Stokowski, Fennell, and Britten kept our lines open to the music and provided tantalizing glimpses of something at least attractive. Hickox and Co. build on these others to reveal someone very like a major composer.

Grainger himself, however, never made things easy for critics. He wrote no symphony or opera or string quartet. His works are mainly short, averaging from three to four minutes, and, as we all know, great worth means great length. He doesn't construct music like the German masters, still our benchmark of musical importance. Very often, he simply repeats a tune over and over, not even bothering to change key, although varying the accompaniment. Even "accompaniment" can be the wrong word, since it frequently takes primary place. It's more a matter of Grainger's piling up of tune and fulsome supply of counter-tune. Then there's the question of his fascination with the same tunes (and the same titles) over and over again. Grainger almost obsessively re-orchestrated and re-composed previous work – sometimes for practical reasons of performance, sometimes because he thought of a new approach. The veteran Grainger fan will recognize several titles in the current program, but these works probably differ substantially from the versions he knows.

Once again, Chandos has built a program that shows off Grainger's range. We can put the items in the following bins: early, even student work; music influenced by folk tunes; Grainger lite; and Grainger the Modernist. Often, a single piece spreads itself among different categories.

The early work includes the Scherzo, Love Verses from the Song of Solomon, Youthful Rapture, and the two Scottish songs, "O Gin I Where the Gadie Rins" and "Skye Boat Song." I almost said "student work," but, outside of a few lessons (which he hated) from Ivan Knorr, Grainger taught himself. "O Gin I" and "Skye Boat" we can deal with quickly. There's nothing wrong with them. Indeed, the "Skye Boat Song" is very beautiful (Varcoe sings the solo baritone version on volume 2, CHAN9503, Della Jones the mezzo version on volume 12, CHAN9730), but it's not remarkable. It doesn't meet our expectations for a composer who can astonish you almost without trying. It sounds as if just about anybody competent could have written it. The Scherzo, on the other hand, Grainger wrote around the age of 15 (c. 1897). It doesn't sound like Grainger either. Again, we find Grainger, even at a young age, confounding expectations. The Scherzo is not in triple time and indeed sounds more like the gavotte in Prokofieff's Classical Symphony, years before the fact. I doubt either composer had heard the other, but the coincidence does show the same questing and quirky sort of mind. The Love Verses and Youthful Rapture are early examples of a major Grainger genre: the fantasia or, in Grainger's beautifully apt phrase, the "free ramble." Grainger disdained the classical forms as artificial, academic, and dead, although he certainly recognized great examples. The "free ramble" represents Grainger's attempt to come up with something "organic" – a form that arises from the material at hand, rather than fitting the material to the constraints of a form. Actually, I believe Grainger missed the point of classical form. No two sonatas – other than school exercises – are alike, as Haydn and Beethoven proved again and again. In the classical masters, material almost always shapes the form, and the "form" becomes something less static than the term suggests. Instead "form" morphs into something more dynamic, like "procedures." At any rate, Grainger preferred to free-associate sections, rather like Delius (although he didn't meet Delius until 1907). This, plus the adaptation in these works of a chromaticism one normally associates with Delius, has led some critics to mistakenly talk about Delius's influence on Grainger. In truth, the two arrived at similar ideas independently, and when they finally met, they became great friends. Youthful Rapture Grainger originally (1901) wrote for cello and piano, called it "A Lot of Rot for Cello and Piano," and dedicated it to his best early friend, a Danish cellist named Herman Sandby. He later worked up the piece for cello and small ensemble. It's a charming morceau, with real poetry in it, although it's hard to get a good performance, and for the same reasons as with Delius. The musicians have to tune themselves to the composer to an unusual degree. However, the most ambitious of these early works is surely the Love Verses (1899-1901). I recall reading somewhere that Grainger was told to set something from the Bible as an exercise. Grainger, like many free-thinkers of the time, detested the Bible in general. However, hearing his fellow-student and composer Roger Quilter read from the Song of Songs aloud set his musical imagination working. The irregular speech rhythms as well as, I suspect, the sensuality of the text appealed to him. And, the Church Fathers notwithstanding, the Song of Songs is pretty much doctrine-free – yet another advantage to someone like Grainger. The composer comes up with something lush and sensual that sounds like a cross between Delius's Mass of Life and Vaughan Williams' Flos campi, again years before the fact of either. Grainger intended to set the whole book but got only as far as this. Hickox performs the 1931 revision. According to the liner notes, the 1901 version will appear in a later Chandos volume.

Among the lollipops, we find Mock Morris, a work so often played (as far as Grainger goes) that I, at any rate, had forgotten to really listen to it. Hickox performs the string-orchestra version (begun 1910; published 1914). Grainger called it originally "Always Merry and Bright," but as the composer himself remarked, unlike most composers of "jolly" music, his dances were usually expressions of fury. The music stings as well as charms, and Hickox gets the strings to bite. Grainger becomes a kind of musical prophet, anticipating not only the writing of the hard-core "folk" school, especially something like Holst's St. Paul's Suite, but also that of the neo-classicists of the Twenties and Thirties. Shepherd's Hey!, essentially the same sort of piece as Mock Morris with its collision of tune with counter-tune, nevertheless shows greater subtlety, even though written earlier, in 1908. Hickox does the original version for "room-music 12-some" (8 strings, flute, clarinet, horn, and – gasp! – concertina). The counterpoint ticks like a Swiss watch and the "fits" between lines are so eccentric, they remind me of one of those Escher "fractal" designs. Molly on the Shore, a meditation on fiddle tunes, comes originally from 1907 and shows the same angry energy, almost like a terrier harrying a rat. Again, Grainger anticipates the kind of stuff to come years later from people like Holst and Vaughan Williams. All three works essentially repeat the same harmonic rhythm over and over. For this reason, critics call them "passacaglias" or "chaconnes." Grainger might not have disavowed the labels, but something else really goes on. Grainger basically gives up chorus after chorus, in a way similar to a jazz musician or a folk player. It takes a very focused mind indeed to do this without listener boredom setting in. At any rate, Grainger came to regard these works with a certain ambivalence. On the one hand, people loved them. On the other, listeners had no desire to go beyond these works. One could argue that Grainger didn't help matters by continually "dishing up" new versions of these pieces (Molly on the Shore exists in at least five; Hickox does the original, for strings). I suspect very strongly that he took pride in these pieces of his, aiming and hitting both popularity and elegance.

The folk-song arrangements show a very wide range of musical expression. Britten, no slouch as an arranger of traditional melodies, considered Grainger the finest setter of British folk-tunes. As much as I like Holst and Vaughan Williams and Britten himself, I can see his point. The Power of Love is actually a Danish folk-song. Grainger's interest in Scandinavia ran deep – probably even deeper than Delius's – and he spoke fluent Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian. The Power of Love Grainger collected only in fragment. The singer knew only the last verse, although she remembered the outline of the story. Grainger stretched it, however, to more than four minutes. He began it in 1922 and it took him to 1941 to work it into the form here. It's a doom-laden score, surely influenced by a rather bloody plot, with Grainger's chromatics twisting into the earth like Wotan's spear. He later included a purely instrumental version of it in his Danish Folk Song Suite. Died for Love also exists in several forms, including one for solo voice and piano (heard on CHAN9730, with Della Jones). Hickox plays a version for strings. The accompaniment is an ostinato that sticks to the memory like a burr and becomes hypnotic. It's as if one overheard the music under the hill. Early One Morning occupied Grainger on and off for almost forty years. Hickox performs a version for strings. The well-known tune receives a head-snapping new set of harmonies, which emphasizes the sorrow of the abandoned maiden. Begun in 1902, The Three Ravens is one of Grainger's masterpieces (1949 version), for solo baritone, chorus, and a chamber group of five clarinets. Grainger emphasizes the grotesque, with wails from the sopranos, as the soloist tells the story of the carrion feast. The Irish Tune from County Derry has appeared on several recordings, usually in the string version. The basic blueprint of the composition is unusual. Grainger determined to write a full harmonic setting made up entirely of lines that would make sense sung independently. Hickox presents the première modern recording of Grainger's setting with strings, harmonium, and Solovox (a primitive electronic keyboard instrument), originally made for a Columbia recording by Stokowski in 1952. It's an odd, sour sound that lends even more poignance to the tune.

Dollar and a Half a Day (also known as Lowlands) from 1909 (published 1922), for men's chorus and solo baritone and tenor, is yet another Grainger masterpiece. The tune alone tears your heart out. It's a fascinating remnant of a little-known corner of history – a shanty sung by black ocean-going sailors, lamenting their unequal pay:

Five dollars a day is a white man's pay
(Lowlands, lowlands away my John),
But a dollar and a half is a nigger's pay
(My dollar and a half a day).

The setting is mostly one of great longing, and Grainger exploits the richness of the male choir. At one point, the solo tenor tears through that soft, cushiony sound, with an upward, jagged line. It illustrates superbly Grainger's contention that a discord made its greatest effect in a setting of "sweetness" and that one understood his music rightly only as a "pilgrimage of sorrow."

That leaves us with the visionary Modernist. The Chandos team has given us here two outstanding examples: Danny Deever and the Random Round in its recording première. Grainger began Danny Deever in 1903 and substantially finished it in the Twenties. This version, for men's chorus, solo baritone, piano (maybe even a couple of pianos), and harmonium comes from 1926. Compared to the music of its time, the harmonies are livid, garish, stark, and wildly unpredictable. It's like encountering the music of Gesualdo. Grainger captures the incomprehensible brutality of Deever's crime. I've always suspected that Kipling wrote about a real incident. He doesn't try to give motive. The poem, for all its reflexive sentimentalizing of the British Tommy, has at its core the terror of one of those notorious Midwestern killing sprees. Hickox and Co. play up the harshness of the story, even going so far as to overdo the Cockney soldiers' accents, which lends an even more metallic sound to the score.

Grainger wrote the Random Round in 1912. He got the idea from hearing the group improvisations of South Sea Islanders. John Bird describes the work:

Random Round is divided into several sections, each of which is begun when a Javanese gong is sounded. Within each section the thematic material is treated in ten to twenty variant forms and, to a harmonic ostinato strummed on a guitar, the vocalists and/or instrumentalists are at liberty to take any variant at any time, at any speed, and jump to another at will (but at the correct pitch). The variants are written so that some sort of harmonic whole might emerge from a performance.

Grainger seriously overestimated most classically-trained musicians' ability to improvise, although I believe he'd have a decent shot now. After all, we've had decades of experience with Hovhaness and Harrison and Cage and Lutosławski and Ligeti. At any rate, in 1943 he threw in the towel and made a set version, which Hickox records here. It's a piece that leaps and sparks about. For all of Bird's perfectly-correct but exceedingly solemn description, Random Round throws off, like much of Grainger's best work, more high spirits than you are prepared for. It reminds me of those stories of Grainger's incredible physical energy, as when he would toss a ball over the roof of a house, run through the house, and catch the ball on the other side.

I regard this CD as one of the standouts of an already-wonderful series. Hickox gets rhythmically sharp and clear playing from his instrumentalists. The Joyful Company of Singers take their place as one of the finest choral groups in the world. Stephen Varcoe is simply one of the best singers before the public. He invests his Three Ravens and Danny Deever with the dramatic subtlety of a Fauré song. He seems able to sculpt a musical line into any shape he wants. Barry Ould's notes are quite good, although I would have liked to have had more details on instrumentation and dates somewhere in the booklet. To those collectors considering Grainger, I would suggest putting these on one's wish list, even before collections from bigger names.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz