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CD Review

Percy Grainger

Grainger Edition Volume 12
Songs for Mezzo

  • Folksong settings
  • Four settings from Songs of the North
  • The Bridegroom Grat
  • The Land O' the Leal
  • The Lonely Desert Man Sees the Tents of the Happy Tribes
  • Colonial Song
  • 2 settings of Rudyard Kipling
  • 5 settings of Ella Grainger
  • Corteccia: O Glorious, Golden, Era
  • Lemche: Little Ole with his Umbrella
  • Variations on Handel's "The Harmonious Blacksmith"
  • Harvest Hymn
  • After-word *
Della Jones, mezzo-soprano
Penelope Thwaites, piano
Mark Padmore, tenor
Stephen Varcoe, baritone
John Lavender, piano
Chandos CHAN9730 73:49
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Truth to tell, a little disappointing.

More from Chandos' magnificent Grainger series, apparently dedicated to recording everything from the composer's pen. I suppose I must bow to the inevitable and recognize that not everything comes from the top drawer, but it did take me twelve volumes to get to that point.

The fault lies in the program more than anywhere else. Although I find wonderful, even jaw-dropping pieces, I find an awful lot of deadwood as well. I might as well get those out of the way first. Grainger wrote the settings from Songs of the North pretty early. He may not even have been out of his teens. The arrangements are capable, but not the brilliant I expect from this composer and lack the distinctive stamp of unpredictable genius that typically hallmark his work. The settings of tunes and poems by his wife Ella are mostly sentimental claptrap, in a way that reminds me of Carrie Jacobs Bond. But even here, there's a gem. Ella, a former student at the Slade School of Art, also wrote verse and began to compose in the Forties. She wrote the tune and harmonized the first verse of "To Echo." Percy harmonized the second and also set the instrumentation (originally for seven instruments; here, for piano). In the words of Grainger maven Barry Peter Ould, the song "begins like a medieval carol; the middle section sounds like a Scandinavian folk song and the end has echoes of Grainger's interest in experimental music." Somehow, it all works together. Ella contributes something unusual, and her harmonies remind me a bit of Britten in a medieval mood. Percy, in the Unusual Sweepstakes, doesn't lag behind. His verse rocks uneasily on a sea of unstable harmony, almost without tonal center. Oddly enough, it's the voice that anchors the listener to tonality.

In general, the better songs are either original compositions or folk-song arrangements (and with Grainger, as with Copland, this amounts to recomposition) made after 1900. "Died for Love," one of my favorites (it appears also in volume 9 in Grainger's arrangement for chorus and instruments), and features a hypnotic ostinato in the accompaniment. It puts the singer in the attitude of singing to him- or herself. "Sprig of Thyme" appeared on Britten's classic collection (London/Decca 425159-2) in a version for tenor and instruments, as did "Willow, Willow." Della Jones sings the first version of "Willow, Willow." "Early One Morning" (also on volume 9 in another version) begins by confounding the expectations of those who know the tune by turning the mode from major to minor. The singer then enters in the "correct" mode and finishes the song with a rapturous, wordless counter-melody. "In Bristol Town" appears in an arrangement from some Grainger instrumental sketches by Alan Gibbs for voice and guitar. It nicely changes the pace and cleanses the aural palate.

Grainger showed as much interest in Scandinavian folk music as in British and American. Indeed, he spoke fluent Swedish (Ella was Swedish), Norwegian (which helped him in his friendship with Grieg), and Danish (his long-time mistress, Karen Holten, was Danish). "Under a Bridge" (under en bro) has appeared before (orchestrated, on Australian EMI LP EMD5514, conducted by John Hopkins). The song comes from Jutland. It portrays two lovers teasing each other, finally setting the date for marriage. The duet begins a cappella, with the suitor asking his girl when she wants to set the date, and the girl replying she has no interest in marrying him. After a couple of verses, the piano comes in with a harmonically tenuous trembling. The voices continue, and then the piano strikes up a lively, stamping wedding dance, with the voices largely absent, except for shouts of encouragement to the musicians. "Hubby and Wifey," another Jutland song in duet, portrays a quarrelling couple beating each other up, finally stopping when the wife cracks a distaff over her spouse's head. The accompaniment has the animal vigor of Grainger's "merry" dances and provides considerable insight as to the psychic engine of that bursting energy.

Kipling could very well have been Grainger's favorite poet. In addition to a stunning setting of "Danny Deever," Grainger worked for close to fifty years on a cycle of poems from The Jungle Book (recorded complete, with Stephen Layton and Polyphony, on Hyperion CDA66863). "The Only Son" comes from the cycle, while "The Love Song of Har Dyal" is an independent work. Kipling seems to us rather sentimental and silly these days, but his contemporaries regarded him as a harsh modern. This definitely comes through in Grainger's settings. "Har Dyal" occupied Grainger from 1901 to three years before his death, when he created a version for voice and chamber ensemble. Unusually for Grainger, it lies close to songs like Hageman's "Do Not Go, My Love," but it's a superior example of the genre. Jones and Thwaites do the original 1901 setting for voice and piano. The Hyperion CD does the 1958 orchestration. "The Only Son," from 1947, is actually a little scena for mezzo, tenor, and baritone, with piano. Mowgli has left the jungle and almost forgotten the wolves. But he meets with his wolf-mother for the last time. The tenor has the major share of the work, singing the worries and half-memories of Mowgli as the cries of the wolves wake him from sleep. It's an obsessive text, to obsessive, worrisome music. The three voices come together in the last lines of the poem as "a grey bitch wolf came out of the dark and fawned on the only son." If nothing else, it shows Grainger's idealistic approach to his career. I can't think of too many recitals where you'd hire two extra singers for a few measures of music.

Grainger built whole pieces around vocalise – singing on vowels, rather than words. Considering them in mass, I suspect very strongly that he thought of this not as a pretty device (as Rachmaninoff or Fauré might have, for example), but as the overflow of powerful emotion or the song of nature itself. The CD includes several examples: "Colonial Song" (Grainger's love-song to his native Australia), "Harvest Hymn" (based on a Swedish folk tune), "Variations on Handel's 'The Harmonious Blacksmith" (an earlier version of his better-known Handel in the Strand), "The Lonely Desert Man Sees the Tents of the Happy Tribes," and "After-word." Grainger wrote "After-word" on the death of his former mistress, Karen Holten. It's a cross between a melody like the "Harvest Hymn" and "All Through the Night." Like most of Grainger's vocalises, the voice sings its own counter-tune, rather than double anything in the accompaniment. It sings simply and eloquently. Words would only muck it up. Grainger wrote "The Lonely Desert Man" in two bursts: the "lonely desert man" music (which first appeared in Grainger's "imaginary ballet" The Warriors, and the "happy tribes" music (which first appeared in his Tribute to Foster). Eventually, he got them together in one. The piece opens with characteristic Grainger shimmering in the piano and the desert man (tenor) singing his heart out. The mood shifts abruptly to an up-tempo duet between mezzo and baritone, very evocative of trotting horses, the "happy tribes." I've heard this piece orchestrated but have no idea whether the instrumentation is Grainger's own.

Della Jones sings very well indeed. She's at her most appealing in the mature folk-song settings, where she assumes a "folk" accent without any hint of affectation. At her best, she communicates directly with the listener. You're not really aware of technique, which means she has mastered it. Occasionally, however, she does put a foot wrong, in the direction of over-selling. In the Ella Grainger settings, for example, she gets way too jolly in "Crying for the Moon," a warning to importunate children. She seems to say, "We know this is all good fun," thus patronizing the child. In "Farewell to an Atoll," she gives in to the sentimentality of the text and comes up with a reading that even fifty years ago no one would have taken seriously. But these are small things and rare at that. However, she does compete with my memory of Stephen Varcoe's Grainger recital in volume 2. Varcoe's simply one of the five great Lieder singers before the public today. Thwaites proves herself once again a superb accompanist, but comparing her here to her collaboration with Varcoe, one senses a slight disconnect between singer and pianist. There's nothing "out," but there's no sense of a single mind either.

I've committed to the entire series (there are incredible things to come), and, all things considered, these readings are beautifully presented. But for those of you on a budget and not as fanatical about Grainger as I, this might be a candidate to skip.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz