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CD Review

Percy Grainger

In a Nutshell

  • Grainger:
  • In a nutshell: Suite
  • Arrival Platform Humlet
  • Gay but Wistful (Tune in a popular London style)
  • Pastoral
  • The Gum Suckers' March
  • Train Music (Standard symphonic version by Eldon Rathburn)
  • Country Gardens: English Morris Dance Tune (Version for Stokowski, 1950)
  • Lincolnshire Posy
  • Lisbon (Sailor's Song)
  • Horkstow Grange (The Miser and His Man - a local tragedy)
  • Rufford Park Poachers (Poaching Song)
  • The Brisk Young Sailor (who returned to wed his true love)
  • Lord Melbourne (War Song)
  • The Lost Lady Found (Dance Song)
  • The Warriors: Music to an imaginary ballet for orchestra & three pianos *
  • Ravel (arr. Grainger): La vallée des cloche (Miroirs)
  • Debussy (arr. Grainger): Pagodes (Estampes)
* Malcom Wilson, Roderick Elms, Wayne Marshall, pianos
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
* City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Stephen Frost
EMI CDC 56412 DDD 69:59
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Better things come to those who wait.

This CD features orchestral works by Percy Grainger. In most of them, percussion figures prominently, but it's not the usual wham-bok. Grainger, one of the most original musical minds, almost never resorted to what you might expect. Growing up in the South Pacific, he became interested in the music of native peoples, including the Maoris, Polynesians, Chinese, and Indonesians. The gamelan of Bali in particular attracted him, as it had Debussy and Ravel, with its sharp contrasts of rippling color and percussive blows. Grainger discovered as many new uses for percussion as Varèse.

The orchestral suite In a Nutshell brings together five early Grainger pieces, all independently written between 1907 and 1912, but assembled in 1916. The suite begins with "Arrival Platform Humlet," which, as you might guess, Grainger composed while waiting for a train. If one accepts the music as a guide, one would conclude that Grainger hated waiting for trains. Indeed, on one of his tours, rather than hang around, he ran from one railroad stop to another, changing from gym clothes to concert dress in time for the performance. The first written version exists for solo viola or massed violas. Grainger's scoring fascinates. The piece remains essentially one line of music, but for full orchestra. The idea is not for massed sound, but for changing color. The music sounds like a cross between a Berber chant and a Celtic war cry. Percussion plays a major role, particularly what Grainger called "tuneful percussion," chimes, glockenspiels, tuned gongs, celestas, xylophones, and so on. "Gay but Wistful (Tune in a Popular London Style)" begins with an evocation of English music hall, particularly of "girl acts." It manages to exemplify and transcend the genre. Again, one notes the idiosyncratic orchestration, extraordinarily transparent. "Pastoral" begins with a folk-like tune, but the orchestration – again, full of percussion – quickly transforms the tune into something more disturbing, more jangly, all without the percussion really coming to the fore. Grainger also intensifies dissonance from the normal "melody" instruments and draws an acidic sound from the winds, by emphasizing the double reeds. Toward the end, tonality sort of hangs on by its fingernails, and one can make legitimate comparisons to Schoenberg's "freely atonal" works of roughly the same period. One doubts, however, that Grainger had heard Schoenberg, and Grainger doesn't try to turn atonality into a raison d'être. It is simply a means to increase the emotional tension. The end leaves the listener hanging – an amazing work for a composer who at the time simply hadn't heard all that much modern music. He makes it up as he goes along. The finale, "Gum-Suckers March," kind of sits to one side. It's Grainger in his lollipops mode, familiar to anyone who's heard "Country Gardens." However, the orchestration sets it apart from other light music of the time – preternaturally clear, with a fondness for the piano as part of the instrumental mass.

Train Music comes from even earlier, during Grainger's on-again, off-again student days in Frankfurt. Cyril Scott, a fellow member of the "Frankfurt Gang," wrote:

At an age when Wagner was writing offensively like Meyerbeer, Grainger was already writing like himself…. Swerving away from his Handelian tendencies he began to show a harmonic modernism which was astounding in so young a boy, and at times excruciating to our pre-Debussian ears; and, strange to say, he began writing in a whole-tone scale without knowing of Debussy's existence.

A 1900 train journey inspired Train Music, and Grainger envisioned it for a huge orchestra of 150 players, including 8 oboes and 6 bassoons. The composer got only as far as a fragment of between one and two minutes, and Rattle plays an arrangement (by Eldon Rathburn) for standard symphony orchestra. As such, it's too piecemeal to make much of an impression, and I wonder what Scott heard in it that seemed so new. I should mention that Scott writes from a vantage point of years after the fact. At the time, he usually derided Grainger's works and refused to take the composer seriously.

Grainger came to a certain ambivalence about Country Gardens. On the one hand, it was his most popular piece and kept him in royalties. On the other, it was just about the only one of his works the public seemed interested in, and it kept critics from exploring Grainger's music further, leading to a severe underrating of the composer's achievement. The orchestration for Stokowski (1950; Grainger began the original in 1908) reflects Grainger's affection and annoyance toward the work: bright, delicate sonorities get the occasional smear of "wrong" notes, subtle raspberries if you will. But there's little ill-will here. Wit, rather than malice, rules.

The two arrangements – Debussy's "Pagodes" (1928) and Ravel's "La Vallée des cloches" (1944) – stand among Grainger's most extreme experiments with percussion. The Ravel ensemble contains, appropriately enough, every standard instrument that can be said to make a bell-like sound, as well as a complement of strings. The orchestration is as masterful as any by Ravel, and that says something. Indeed, the thought that popped into my head was why Ravel hadn't done it himself. "Pagodes" is even more experimental – an attempt to mimic the gamelan which had originally inspired Debussy. I believe the only instrument not percussion in the ensemble is the harmonium, analogous to the Balinese flute ensemble. The percussion provides little accent, rather color and melody. It's a beautiful, hypnotic sound, and of course Debussy's music doesn't need me to tell you it's good.

From what I know of Grainger's music, I'd say that the Jungle Book cycle and the "imaginary ballet," The Warriors (1913-1916), count as his most ambitious works. Certainly, The Warriors runs the longest of his extended pieces. Grainger originally wrote it for Beecham, who never performed it (he wasn't alone in his neglect, however). Grainger described it as "an orgy of war-like dances, processions and merry-making, broken, or accompanied, by amorous interludes." Except for its ferocious energy and its use of expanded percussion (including three, count 'em, three, pianos) to create an aggressive, in-your-face, bright sound, it musically resembles no other Grainger I know. It seems a "road not taken," or taken only once. For eight exciting minutes, it rushes headlong, like white rapids, until finally we meet a slow, but intense solo for, of all things, a bass oboe. The slow music (in one tempo and rhythm) continues with interjections from the war dancers (in their own tempo and rhythm). Of course, one thinks of Ives, but Grainger hadn't heard Ives. The effect is much the same in both – two independent but simultaneous planes of activity – but Grainger's much clearer. The fast music gradually takes over for a big, bopping, mucho grandioso finish. Like most of Grainger's longer pieces, it defies standard structural analysis, but you don't care. It grabs you in its claws and carries you off.

Lincolnshire Posy has long established itself as a masterpiece for wind ensemble. Grainger recalls his folk-song collecting days (he was one of the first to take an Edison recording machine and wax cylinders into the field) in beautiful, brilliant arrangements. To call them "arrangements," however, underestimates what Grainger has actually done. Like Copland's Old American Songs, Lincolnshire Posy has made new compositions out of existing tunes. It's hard to pick out a favorite movement, but mine might just be "Lord Melbourne (War Song)" – much of it in fierce, powerful unison, and owing nothing to standard musical form. It seems less composed than found – as organic as a piece of granite. Rattle does a very good job, but no better than Fennell on Mercury (434330-2) or Reynish on Chandos (Grainger Edition, Volume 4, CHAN9549).

Indeed, Rattle's collection may prove a bit superfluous as time goes by. The Chandos Grainger Edition project will undoubtedly include all of these works, and the series has so far been superb, blowing the competition out of the water. Hickox, for example, will lead the orchestral stuff, and as good as Rattle is, Hickox penetrates Grainger's music more deeply. Make no mistake, Rattle and Birmingham do well, but not especially well. In a Nutshell shows up on Volume 1 (CHAN9493), The Warriors on Volume 6 (CHAN9584). However, you may want to hear the Ravel and the Debussy now. Just keep in mind that a more interesting disc will very likely come off the line relatively soon.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz