PERCY GRAINGER: Folk Songs CD review – a beautiful celebration of a subversive composer

Disarming and engaging … pianist Christopher Glynn and soprano Claire Booth.

Andrew Clements writes:

More than half a century after his death, Percy Grainger’s true stature as a composer remains hard to pin down. For all that his own music trampled across stylistic boundaries and cheerfully subverted the conventions and proprieties of concert music, and despite the highly original textural imagination it sometimes reveals, this utterly distinctive musical personality rarely seems to have produced any genuinely enduring pieces. The oddities of Grainger’s private life – his obsessively close relationship with his mother, life-long interest in flagellation, and insistence on running between the venues on his concert tours, among other things – have often been examined more closely than any of the music he composed.

What is uncontested, though, is the importance of the contribution the Australian-born Grainger made to the English folk-song revival while he was based in Britain between 1901 and 1914, and dividing his time between his career as a concert pianist and folk-song collecting. After making arrangements of the tunes he found in existing collections, he began making forays into the field himself – especially to Lincolnshire, where he discovered yet more material. He made a variety of arrangements of what he found, as well as inventing “folk tunes” of his own; Benjamin Britten, no mean folk-song arranger himself, was a huge admirer of what Grainger achieved.

Soprano Claire Booth and pianist Christopher Glynn provide a beautifully planned celebration of that achievement. Some of Grainger’s solo-piano arrangements punctuate the songs, and they end with a piano-duet version of his most famous number, Country Gardens, in which Booth gets the chance to demonstrate her skills as a pianist too. The arrangements range from straightforward transcriptions, which Booth sings with disarmingly purity, to those in which Grainger takes the original song into unexpectedly complex territory. The Power of Love, which is based on a tune the composer heard in Norway, sets its single repeated verse within piano interludes of tremendous, wracked intensity, while Hard Hearted Barb’ra (H)Ellen, the longest song in the collection, runs through 13 verses in which voice and piano steadily diverge. Booth and Glynn beautifully manage the contrasts between simplicity and immense sophistication that all these songs regularly provide; it makes a really engaging sequence.