ABC Classics 481 1601 (5 CDs)
Reviewed by Gwen Bennett, June 1st, 2015
When I was a teenager, the wisdom of my elders decreed that Percy Grainger be dismissed as a lightweight and not worth the time of day – so were they being influenced by rumours of his eccentricities? or maybe they never had the opportunity to hear more of his music than the over-exposed Country Gardens or Handel in the Strand.
Over half a century since Grainger’s death, this negative attitude still prevails to some extent. He did not compose symphonies or operas and because much of his music was based on folksong, he was denigrated as having no creative ideas of his own.
However, Grainger knew a good tune when he heard it and was indeed inspired by folksong to create music in his own unique style such that a listener might hear only a few bars, or less, before identifying the composer. This is by no means common. He also wrote very many compositions independently of folksong influences. He was an outstandingly gifted pianist and most of his works for the instrument are complex and virtuosic.
This 5 x CD box set of Grainger’s piano music for two, four and six hands, re-issued by ABC Classics, was first recorded in the mid-1970s. The performances sound fresh, vibrant and clear; the ABC teams have done their jobs well, both the original recording personnel and the group responsible for the 2015 re-release.
Three CDs (Volumes 1 and 2) showcase soloist Leslie Howard, famous for his acclaimed recordings of the complete piano works of Franz Liszt. He puts the same dedication into Grainger’s music: original compositions, inventive folksong arrangements and re-workings of favourite melodies by Bach, Handel, Brahms, Strauss, Gershwin, Fauré and Dowland. Grainger usually made multiple versions of his music and in this set we get two arrangements of several works, for example In a Nutshell and Children’s March: Over the Hills and Far Away, which reappear in Volume 3 in settings for two pianos.
The more than sixty separate tracks deliver a fine overview of Grainger’s writing. Many of them are quite short, or are short movements collected into a suite. Longer pieces are on Volume 3, where Leslie Howard is joined by David Stanhope in the four-hand works and by Geoffrey Parsons for six-hand works; these are: Hill-Song No.1, English Dance, Green Bushes and The Warriors: Music to an Imaginary Ballet.
The program note reveals that Hill-Song No.1 was first scored for “the rather startling combination of two piccolos, six oboes, six cors anglais, six bassoons and one contrabassoon”. Later it was arranged for a more conventional group, also for this two-piano version. It is a dreamlike ramble in the countryside, gentle in mood, yet extremely complex in the use of unusual rhythms and time signatures which the performers manage with aplomb. Grainger regarded it as one of his best compositions.
The name English Dance creates the expectation of another folk-song setting but no, this is pure Grainger at his boisterous best – maybe it is a bit tongue-in-cheek because it does not sound at all like a dance. It is a full-on, non-stop momentum of big chords and tremolandos through to its over-the-top finish, concluding with a glissando which has the effect of a musical Yahooo!
In contrast, Green Bushes takes a well-known folksong and gives it multiple repetitions, yet it is not boringly repetitious, nor is it a set of variations. The theme is treated in endlessly inventive and interesting ways, often interwoven with other melodies and ending with an exciting coda.
Arguably Grainger’s most significant work is The Warriors: Music to an Imaginary Ballet. It was commissioned by Thomas Beecham in 1913 for a proposed performance by the Ballet Russes, but the project did not come to fruition as World War I intervened. Grainger imagined a warrior scenario, hence the title. It is an extraordinary bit of inventive writing, quite as dramatic as Stravinsky’s ballet scores from around the same era and, to quote his biographer, “not for the faint-hearted”. Originally for a large orchestra, this reduction is for six hands on two pianos and, towards the end of the work, a brass band. It makes a fine conclusion to the collection.
This CD set fully demonstrates Grainger’s individual voice. While he is frequently wistful or contemplative in his writing, it is his energy, exuberance and playfulness that impresses. One gets the feeling that the superb musicians on these recordings were having fun.
Notes on the music are by Michael Noone, Leslie Howard and David Stanhope. Biographies of the performers are included, also a few lines about the composer whose extraordinary life story can be found elsewhere, particularly in an excellent biography by John Bird.
I enjoyed these performances immensely and found the sheer vitality of the writing infectious. Recommended for Grainger admirers, and for sceptics who might feel inspired to have another listen.