Beecham developed a reputation for enthusing, inciting, even
bullying, composers into writing pieces for him and then moving on to
‘greater things’. So it was with Walton and Belshazzar's Feast (add
in a couple of brass bands; you'll never hear it again anyway!) and
so it was also with Percy Grainger and The Warriors.
Having conducted the premiere of English Dance Beecham
suggested that Grainger write a ballet and Beecham would provide the
scenario. These were the gaudy days of the Ballets Russes and perhaps
Beecham had an eye to striking a deal with Diaghilev. As it turned out
nothing seems to have happened on Beecham's side. Grainger however wrote
the score of the 'Imaginary Ballet' - The Warriors between December
1913 and December 1916.
The Warriors is an orgiastic festivity, rather
like a great dancing pageant with touches of Petrushka and a
splendidly dissolute Ivesian complexity. Simon catches this very well
though he misses the hell-for-leather intoxication of a performance
by the Gerard Schwarz (1970s private tape - Waterloo Festival Orchestra)
and the John Eliot Gardiner conducted version on DG (coupled with The
Planets). Musichall excess, lapses of taste (try 16.31), amorous
interludes, great rockslide screes of activity all pour in and even
some nobilmente right out of the Pomp and Circumstance marches
and from Parry's Jerusalem. The three pianos punctuate and limn
the outlines of the action with a hint of jazziness (à la Rio
Grande) and a dash of Winter Legends (a work still ten years
in the future). There are episodes of Baxian repose as at 11.04 in the
song of the cor anglais.
Stephen Lloyd, in his very thorough and consistently
interesting note, reminds us that Grainger's mind's eye imagined the
music to a scene of male and female warriors from every land and every
time. This universality reminds us of the world's communion as evoked
by Alan Bush in many of his works including the song-cycle The Voice
of the Prophets. As ever Grainger hymned the glories of the human
body and for him all the better if its setting was some vast jamboree,
an assemblage of fighting folk celebrating their strength in dance and
in love-making; very appropriate really as this work represents one
exhausting orgasmic explosion of exhilaration.
The orchestra for The Warriors is a peculiar
one. I have mentioned the three pianos. There is also an offstage band
(heard in nice distance subtly at 12.38 onwards). There are six horns,
wooden and steel marimbas, bass oboe, tubular and staff bells, celesta
Beautiful Fresh Flower is a realisation of a
Chinese song. It cannot help sounding a little like the revivalist hymn
Yes Jesus Loves Me and slowly rippling with the sort of string
sonority we associate with Roy Harris and with mid-period Vaughan Williams
as in the Concerto Grosso. A warm Barbirolli-like lushness
glows off the surface of the Irish Tune from County Derry. Colleen
Dhas is caught in delight between Vaughan Williams at his most approachably
folksy and Delius the singer.
The First Hill Song is a major piece. If The
Warriors had eternity's soldiery as its subject Hill Song No.
1 looks to the hills. The high places here include the ‘soul-shaking’
landscapes of West Argyll. Grainger envisioned a much wider reference
field than just the Caledonian mountain terrain. These Hill Songs
were a celebration of hill peoples, hill music and hill countries everywhere.
Rather as in The Warriors we must imagine the highlands of the
Tatras (cf Karłowicz and Novák) as
well as the Derbyshire Hills (Hadley) and the Norwegian mountains (Delius).
We might have been hard put trying to find any Delius in The
Warriors but there are Delian inflections, shapes and ciphers in
this music. Simon is exceptional at the sharply accented rhythmic work
in a piece that tends to vertical murkiness. The much shorter Second
Hill Song has the rhythmic crackling snap of Bax's Northern Rhapsody
No. 1 although it resolves into a warm hazy horizon.
The four movements of the Danish Folk-Music suite
are: The Power of Love (with its trumpet cantilena), Lord
Peter's Stable-Boy (a blowsy, smocked-yokels galumph rather in partnership
with Shepherd Fennel's Dance by Delius's friend Balfour Gardiner
- now there's a man whose music demands of us a complete CD anthology),
The Nightingale and the Two Sisters (surprisingly lush - like
an archetypically generous John Barry tune) and the Jutish Medley
(jaunty, untamed, bellicose, serenading, diverse and jolly).
This is a nice disc and one which would serve as a
warming introduction to the orchestral side of Percy Grainger's genius.
It cuts a necessarily broader swathe through the repertoire than the
scholarly progression of the Hickox/Chandos Grainger Edition. The
Warriors and the two Hill Songs make this a very desirable
acquisition for those who fancy a single disc anthology of the music
of this most rebellious and eccentric of composers.