Martin Jones’s recordings of Percy Grainger have been gathered
together into a 5-CD box set of the Complete Works, NI1767,
in which form they were reviewed by Jonathan Woolf in March
2011 – here
– but we don’t seem to have reviewed this generous selection.
It’s all that many potential listeners will want and I see that
it’s advertised as available again. My copy of the CD dates
from 1994. It’s not a reissue of a single CD from the set but
a compendium of Grainger’s best-known works.
Let me deal with the least attractive part first: as Jonathan
Woolf noted, the recording is not to everyone’s taste – it’s
certainly too reverberant for my liking, but it didn’t get in
the way of my enjoyment too much. Subscribers to the Naxos Music
Library might wish to try it there first – here
– but give it a chance: after a few tracks you’ll hardly notice
Just about all the likely suspects are included in the programme,
together with several pieces that I would hardly have described
as well-known: track 4, for example, offers Grainger’s take
on Dowland’s Now, O now, I needs must part. It’s in a
style far removed from the madly dancing Percy Grainger that
viewers of a certain age will retain from Ken Russell’s film
about Delius – that’s Grainger, that was – and, though I hardly
recognised Dowland’s original tune from Grainger’s treatment,
he does retain the gravity and melancholy spirit of the original.
Much the same is true of My Robin is to the Greenwood gone
(track 7) – the original tune is submerged in Grainger’s arrangement
of what emerges as a fine piece in its own right. Nor is a folk
tune such as Near Woodstock Town (track 15) quite the
same after Grainger’s treatment. Mock Morris on the following
track makes no pretentions to be other than Grainger’s own take
on folk music – it only sounds as if it were based on a folk
tune. In many respects it’s more quintessentially Grainger than
anything else and it’s brought off to perfection here.
There are several arrangements here: the next track after Dowland
(tr.5) contains Blithe Bells, Grainger’s arrangement
of Schafe können sicher weiden (Sheep may safely graze),
though, again, Bach’s original is almost lost in the latter
part of the arrangement – it’s much more Grainger’s ‘own’ than
Walton’s take on the same piece in The Wise Virgins.
Other tracks contain arrangements of Stanford, Tchaikovsky and
Richard Strauss – a characteristic Ramble on the final
love-duet of Rosenkavalier.
The pop items are skilfully interwoven in the programme, starting
with Handel in the Strand (track 1). Memories of George
Malcolm playing this on the harpsichord are not erased but Martin
Jones offers idiomatic and dextrous performances of the well-known
and lesser-known works alike. Getting your fingers around the
notes in a piece like the Stanford March-jig (track 9)
is only half the story; the other half, which Jones contrives
beautifully, is summoning an image of Grainger himself dancing
to it around Delius’s garden.
On the following track we’re on Irish territory again in very
different mood for the Tune from County Derry (alias
Danny Boy). Does Jones milk the sentiment here slightly
too much in the manner of those Irish tenors such as Josef Locke
whom my father and grandfather worshipped? I think so, but perhaps
my great-grandfather’s Irish blood was simply running a little
too thin by the time it reached my generation. In any case,
Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion is faster and less sentimental
here (see below). John Pickard’s observation in the booklet
that ‘Grainger’s music shares with Bach’s the fact that, no
matter how slowly one plays it, it always sounds satisfying’
looks as if it might have been written in defence of Jones’s
tempo for this piece.
On track 11 Grainger and Jones take on the opening of Tchaikovsky’s
First Piano Concerto single-handed, and do so surprisingly
effectively. No question of too slow a tempo here.
Only if you are likely to be put off by the recording should
you need to look elsewhere. If you do, you are likely to find
a 1996 recording by Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion your best
choice – a very similar selection to that on Nimbus, on CDA66884
(CD or download in mp3 or lossless – here).
If anything, Hamelin is even more fleet-fingered than Jones,
but there’s not much to choose between them. If it’s the orchestral
arrangements that you’re looking for, look no further than the
inexpensive Introduction to Percy Grainger (Chandos CHAN2029:
Bargain of the Month – see review),
a sampler for their excellent complete series (see
review), or another budget-price Chandos selection (CHAN6542,
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kenneth Montgomery).
With first-class performances and excellent notes – not to mention
availability at a keen price direct from MusicWeb International
– there’s a lot to be said in favour of this single-CD selection.
Don’t blame me if it leads you to purchase the complete box,
or if the Chandos sampler tempts you to buy some of the recordings
in that series.