SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

“PERCY GRAINGER: Works for Large Chorus and Orchestra” [TrackList follows] = Melbourne Sym./ Andrew Davis – Chandos

Here, for your delectation, are the works of Percy Grainger the litterateur and student of folk culture. Grainger the musical experimenter is far less in evidence.

Published on September 9, 2013

“PERCY GRAINGER: Works for Large Chorus and Orchestra” = King Solomon’s Espousals; Danny Deever; Marching Song of Democracy; The Wraith of Odin; The Hunter in His Career; Sir Eglamore; The Lads of Wamphray; The Bride’s Tragedy; Tribute to Foster; Thanksgiving Song – Sydney Chamber Choir / Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus / Melbourne Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Davis – Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5121 [Distr. by Naxos], 72:39 (4/30/13) ****:

Australian composer Percy Grainger was certainly rara avis in terra. Or perhaps he was just one strange bird. In any event, Grainger the man—piano virtuoso, maker of innovative musical instruments, ethnomusicologist, racist, anti-Semite, sado-masochist—is more interesting to many people than is the music. Just as with the man, however, the music is fascinatingly multifaceted—Janus-faced certainly doesn’t cover it, though Grainger did look both forward and backward in musical time. His most famous and controversial work, The Warriors, is more wildly Stravinskian (or, better yet, Ivesian) in its use of polyrhythms and emphasis on percussion, both tuned and untuned, than any other music coming out of England or America at the time. (Grainger started work on the piece in 1913, during his London years, completing it in San Francisco in 1916.) Like Ives’s Fourth Symphony, the piece requires additional conductorial support to keep it all together. However, the political subtext of the work must have been more problematical than any performance considerations at the time of its composition. Having left England for America shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914, Grainger was not welcome in a large part of English society thereafter. That The Warriors enunciated an antiwar message in a time when unquestioning patriotism was the rule would not have ingratiated him any further with the English.

Grainger remained a musical (and to some extent, social) iconoclast throughout his life, but besides his experimentalism, Grainger had a lifelong interest in folk music and devoted a good deal of his time to setting folk music. Despite the fact that his harmonizations were always highly individual if not downright idiosyncratic, this other interest of Grainger’s contributed to music that recalls more than a little the music of other folks-song-inspired English pastoralists such as Grainger’s longtime friend Frederick Delius.

That influence is evident in some of the music on the current disc devoted to Grainger’s choral-orchestral music. The music also shows the influence of Grainger’s mother Rose, an autocrat who took Grainger’s education into her own hands with the help of carefully chosen tutors in Melbourne and later Frankfurt, where she managed to enroll Grainger in the prestigious Hoch Conservatory. Rose’s influence is most evident in Grainger’s literary interests, which also inform the pieces on this program (a number of them receiving their first recordings). Danny Deever is based on a poem by Kipling; The Wraith of Odin, on a ballad by Longfellow; and The Bride’s Tragedy, on one by Swinburne. Characteristically, The Lads of Wamphray is based on a folk-inspired poem by Walter Scott, while The Hunter in his Career and Sir Eglamore are taken from collections of traditional English verse.

Even though I had some experience of the two very different sides of Grainger’s eccentric genius, I was somewhat surprised to hear how traditional, and traditionally English, much of this music sounds. There are, of course, clever and perceptive touches throughout. Kipling cast his ballad “Danny Deever” as a dialogue between a naïve young recruit and a color-sergeant who understands the gruesome ritual behind the hanging of Danny Deever for the murder of a fellow solider. In Grainger’s setting, a baritone initiates the dialogue while a male chorus takes up the main body of the poem, thus dividing the perspective in the poem between individual and corporate reactions to the hanging. Appropriately, the poem is set to a march rhythm, and the orchestration gets increasingly louder and more militant as the piece progresses.

The Wraith of Odin tells the story of the appearance of the ghost of a warrior at the banquet of King Olaf. This one-eyed apparition thrills Olaf and his guests with tales of adventure so powerful that only in the morning does Olaf realize he was entertained by a ghost. Grainger’s setting is aptly eerie, with weird harmonies and “the extensive user of glissandi. . . which is extremely challenging, especially to the sopranos and tenors.”

The most ambitious, and personal, work on the program is The Bride’s Tragedy, which tells the tale of a woman who, on the verge of a forced marriage, is “rescued” by her beloved only to drown in a raging river while being pursued by the bride’s family. In a bitter commentary on the piece, Grainger raged, “This work was my personal protest against the sex-negation that our capitalistic world (assisted by mother, by you, & by numberless other well-wishers offered to young talents like me.) A man cannot be a full artist unless he is manly and a man cannot be manly unless his sex-life is selfish, brutal, willful, unbridled.” Grainger’s music is dramatic, yes, but surprisingly conventional on this disc, certainly not nearly as wildly dramatic as this diatribe—or his own sex life must have been.

There’s an especially hearty folksiness in Grainger’s setting of Walter Scott’s tale of the feud between the Johnstones and the Crichtons, to whom our Hatfields and McCoys couldn’t hold a candle, apparently. For me, this piece showcases best Grainger’s talents as a choral composer. (Interestingly, parts of it remind me of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast—written thirty years later!).

The Tribute to Foster is deceptive. For the most part, it sounds about like you’d expect it to sound. It’s based on “Camptown Races,” using Stephen Foster’s original melody and words, though Grainger penned some of the text himself. But as the piece progresses, it becomes increasingly complicated in terms of part and orchestral writing, the final pages, like Grainger’s The Warriors, “requiring two additional conductors to direct separate groups of musicians off-stage.”

Not all of this music is equally effective or memorable, but the best of it bespeaks a restless inventive musical spirit that you want to hear more of. (And if you do, Grainger’s innovative instrumental works such as Train Music and The Warriors are available in good recordings.) Meanwhile, I recommend this offering by the well-traveled Sir Andrew Davis and his forces from Melbourne and Sydney, who do their countryman proud. These are enthusiastic, colorful, very well sung and played performances. And understanding something of the difficulties inherent in performing this often-demanding music, I think the performers deserve an extra round of kudos. The SACD engineering from Down Under is pretty special too—big, spacious, yet quite detailed—not an easy feat given the large forces involved.

—Lee Passarella




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