May 1999

Grainger - Works for Piano
Chandos CHAN-9702
Released: 1999

by Deryk Barker

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]For some unfathomable (and depressing) reason, I have managed to miss the first nine volumes of Chandos' continuing Grainger Edition. As this disc (volume ten, Works for Piano) has scarcely been off my CD player in the last week, I am obviously going to have to investigate the others immediately. Grainger declared later in his life that he hated the piano. This is odd considering that it was his instrument and initial passport to fame. Even more odd, then, that he should have produced such a vast amount of music for the instrument: and not just for one piano, but, as on this wonderful disc, sometimes as many as six.

Grainger was one of the 20th century's great enigmas: child-prodigy pianist from Australia, brought to Europe by his doting mother; studied with Busoni, who reprimanded him for not practicing hard enough, in Berlin; collected folk songs in England with Cecil Sharpe (and later in Scandinavia); gave Delius the melody of Brigg Fair; refused to use "foreign" musical terms, so his scores are littered with directions like "louden" and "soften"; believed in the innate superiority of the "Nordic races" yet was the first person to invite the Duke Ellington Band to perform as part of a lecture at a US university; married onstage at the Hollywood Bowl before an audience of thousands; and conducted a lengthy sadomasochistic correspondence with his wife. Grainger was and did all these -- and more.

This disc combines certain familiar works -- folk-song settings like Country Gardens and Green Bushes -- with more exotic Grainger, although even the familiar pieces are mostly recorded in unfamiliar versions, such as the four-piano Country Gardens. In fact, that is one of the great joys of Grainger: he produced -- or "dished up" to use his own term -- some pieces in many different versions. The eight-hand Country Gardens heard here was made in 1936 (almost two decades after the original) and can, according to the composer, be played in conjunction with most of the other piano arrangements, as well as the orchestral and band versions!

Moreover, Grainger was actually capable of adding something other than a thicker texture when he expanded a work's instrumentation. In the three-plus–piano arrangements, for instance, you'll often find that at least one pianist is adding scintillating decorations in the upper register, while the other(s) deal with the main melody and harmony. Country Gardens is an excellent example, as is the lovely Harvest Hymn (first recording of the four-piano version), in which the effect of a peal of church bells in the final verse is unmistakable.

The disc also combines lengthier works -- such as the Passacaglia on Green Bushes (British Folk Music Setting No.25); Jutish Medley (Danish Folk Music Setting No.9), or English Dance, all of which weigh in at around seven to nine minutes -- with shorter, almost fragmentary ones such as the 47 seconds of Let's Dance Gay in Green Meadow (an unnumbered "Faroe Island Setting"), or The Keel-Row, in which the five pianists have to whistle as well as play.

The final work here is Grainger's largest single piece, The Warriors, which has been recorded several times recently in its orchestral guise (notably by Rattle and Gardiner). Here it is in the version for two pianos, six hands. Subtitled Music for an Imaginary Ballet, it is almost 20 minutes long (both the booklet and the back cover of the CD erroneously lop ten minutes off the track time); it is mostly energetic, rhythmic, and uproarious fun, although there are quieter, more relaxed sections. It is also one of those works whose beginning makes the listener feel as if he or she is joining something that has been in progress for some time already (a trick often used by screenwriters, I'm told), which immediately grabs the attention and never lets go.

The players on this disc include some of the foremost Grainger authorities alive, and the enthusiasm and commitment of their playing is as intense as you would expect. The recording, while not spectacular, is up to Chandos' usual high standards.

If you're a Grainger-phile already, this disc hardly needs recommendation; if you're new, then this is as good a place to start as any. If your only knowledge of Grainger is through Roger "England swings like a pendulum do" Miller's emasculated arrangement of the folk song Country Gardens, then you have a real surprise, not to mention treat, in store.