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Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
The Warriors

The Warriors (Music to an Imaginary Ballet) (1913-16) [17:55]
Irish Tune from County Derry (1902) [5:26]
Danish Folk-Music Suite (1928, rev. 1941) [18:56]: (a) The Power of Love [3:32]; b) Lord Peter's Stable Boy [2:49]; c) The Nightingale and the Two Sisters [4:40]; d) Jutish Medley [7:49])
Hill Song No.1 (1901-02, rev. 1923)* [13:10]
Beautiful Fresh Flower (1935) (arr. Peter Sculthorpe)* [2:34]
Colleen Dhas (1904)* [3:05]
Hill-Song No.2 (1907)* [4:47]
Glen Riddle, Ben Martin, Denise Harvey (pianos in The Warriors)
Claire Clements (piano in Danish Folk-Music Suite)
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Geoffrey Simon
rec. 22-28 February 1989, Town Hall, South Melbourne, Australia. DDD
* World premiere recordings
CALA RECORDS SUPER AUDIO CD CACDS4033 [66:46]

 

These performances were issued some years ago as ‘Percy Grainger Orchestral Works on Australian ABC Classics 426 989-2 and also on Koch International Classics 3-7003-2. It appears that four of the works contained here are in versions that were being recorded for the first time. This is a fascinating compilation and the feature work The Warriors is one of his most curious and inventive scores.

The booklet notes state that, "Percy Grainger was one of the greatest originals of 20th century music." He certainly was and a lot more besides. A true eccentric, the mould was certainly broken when he died. Grainger was never seemingly bothered by the views of others, with the exception of his mother. He came across as strongly self-willed, very much doing his own thing, often in an obsessive and compulsive manner. I remain fascinated by what comes across as his need for making multiple arrangements of his own works, a great number of which were strongly influenced or taken from folk-songs. We have a debt of thanks to Chandos and the Percy Grainger Society for their considerable contribution to the resurgence of interest in Grainger’s works. Mainly owing to their fruitful collaboration Chandos had, at my last count, reached volume 19 in their landmark Grainger Edition.

The score to The Warriors was composed in 1913-16. I always understood it to be Grainger’s longest continuous work (no letters or e-mails please). This work has a convoluted history and has been said to have been conceived as a result of Sir Thomas Beecham’s suggestion to Grainger to write him a ballet score. The mystery continues as the booklet notes relate that documents unearthed in the Grainger Museum, at the University of Melbourne, seem to show that it was never Grainger’s intention to have the score staged as a ballet.

In January 1987 I attended a performance of The Warriors at a BBC Philharmonic concert in Studio 7 at the BBC’s New Broadcasting House in Manchester. John Hopkins conducted the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance with a large richly Straussian orchestra augmented with three pianos and a wide assortment of percussion. My recollection of that event from twenty years ago is not perfect but I remember that the orchestra was divided into various groups; there was another conductor directing an off-stage ensemble and at least one of the pianos underwent some form of ‘preparation’.

On this recording Simon and the Melbourne orchestra perform the work with tremendous vitality and colour in a reading that is hard to fault. The first section is taken very swiftly in music that sounds like it could accompany a Christmas television advertising campaign. Geoffrey Simon directs restless, swirling music that contains a hotchpotch of episodes of excitement, beauty and dissonance with the percussion, including the pianos, prominent throughout. Surprisingly at several points I thought I could detect suggestions of the Christmas carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’.

In the ‘slow and languorous’ second section we hear a highly characterful reading and the busy dance-like quality of the third section becomes increasingly agitated with heavy use of percussion, especially the pianos at the close. The bass-oboe with its haunting yet beautifully played theme over muted tremolo strings takes centre-stage in the fourth section. In the fifth a weary, exhausted quality is conveyed and I was impressed with the balance of the military-sounding off-stage brass section.

In section six the dance-orgy is impressively developed with a furious energy. Then comes a magnificent outburst of emotion. The dance-orgy in the eighth and final section is boldly and extremely energetically performed. The work ends abruptly. I played this SACD on my standard player and was impressed by the clear and well balanced sound quality.

I am only aware of a handful of recordings of Grainger’s The Warriors. From my collection I greatly admire the superbly recorded account from Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra included in ‘Percy Grainger, In a Nutshell’ on EMI Classics 5 56412-2. Recorded in 1996 at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Rattle uses three pianos and Stephen Frost is the assistant conductor. Rattle’s excellent performance is polished and dramatic yet cannot match the earthy vitality and the high degree of colour of this Cala version.

Another fine account is the premiere recording of the version that uses Alessandro Servadei’s 1996 critical edition. This is performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Richard Hickox for Chandos on CHAN 9584. Hickox’s performance is on ‘The Grainger Edition, Volume 6 - Works for Orchestra 2’ and was recorded at the BBC New Broadcasting House, Manchester in 1997. Hickox uses three pianos and employs Paul Hindmarsh as the second conductor in an account that once again doesn’t achieve the excitement and earthy vitality of Geoffrey Simon’s Cala account.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts an acclaimed version of The Warriors with the Philharmonia Orchestra, first released in 1995, on Deutsche Grammophon 445 860-2 (coupled with Holst The Planets) and now also on SACD 471 634-2. I do not have this Gardiner recording, however it is well thought of and I believe that virtually everything that Gardiner conducts is worthy of attention. Whilst on the subject of John Eliot Gardiner readers wishing to explore Grainger’s music further may wish to obtain an outstanding collection of works for chorus and orchestra titled ‘Londonderry Air, The Music of Percy Grainger’ from Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Country Gardiner Orchestra on Philips Classics 446 657-2. This Philips disc, recorded 1994-95 in London, would be worth acquiring just for Gardiner’s superb interpretation of the sailor’s sea shanty Shallow Brown.

One of Grainger’s most popular scores, the Irish Tune from County Derry is also known as the Londonderry Air and has achieved world renown as the song Danny Boy. Grainger composed several versions of the Irish Tune from County Derry and recorded here is his "large room-music, elastically scored" orchestral version from 1920 which is given a passionate and moving reading.

The Danish Folk-Music Suite comprises four works all based on folk melodies he gathered from trips to the Jutland region of the country. Here the first work The Power of Love has at times an unusual bluesy feel and Lord Peter's Stable Boy is buoyant and jaunty. The dramatically performed The Nightingale and the Two Sisters contains a ‘big tune’ that could easily have formed part of a Hollywood film score. The Jutish Medley incorporates four tunes. In the first Simon provides a march-like quality with a carnival atmosphere and the second is tender, almost pastoral, in the manner of Vaughan Williams. The third tune is suggestive of dancing at a county fair and the fourth tune took me far from Jutland feeling evocative of the panorama of wide open spaces such as the American prairie.

Late in his life Grainger wrote the great accolade, "I consider Hill Song No.1 by far the best of all my compositions." In Simon’s broodingly characterful interpretation of the Hill Song No.1 one can almost smell the freshness of the open air and feel the crisp breeze on ones face in a score so evocative of Highland landscapes. Aptly, one is yet again struck by the convincing outdoor feel of the Hill-Song No.2. There is a strong sense of night drawing-in after the exertions of a long and tiring day spent trekking through the Scottish Highlands.

Beautiful Fresh Flower appears here in an arrangement by contemporary Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. Geoffrey Simon easily and realistically communicate the Chinese influences in this brief and relaxing work. Colleen Dhas is another short work presented here in Grainger’s "room music" setting. The freshness of the great outdoors is again evident, infused with a distinct Gaelic flavour. One can visualise Grainger taking a day’s tramp through the lush green valley that rises up from the cool blue-green waters of the lake below.

High excitement, earthy vitality and superbly recorded sound. This spirited account of Grainger’s The Warriors from Geoffrey Simon and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is the one to have.

Michael Cookson

 

see also review by Jonathan Woolf



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