Top Ear

Musician of the Week: Percy Grainger

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This week’s musician occupies a curious position in the repertoire of Western music, and coupled with his prolific output of miniatures, he seems to be among Western composers such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Copland what Satie is among Debussy and Ravel. An Australian fascinated with British folk tunes, a virtuoso pianist who reportedly hated the piano, and a practitioner of sadomasochism, here is the very-hard-to-pigeonhole Percy Grainger.

File:Percy Aldridge Grainger.jpg

His name seems to be new to many people, but as a matter of fact many of his arrangements are extremely popular, if only because the tunes he based them on are instantly recognizable. Ever heard Londonderry Air? Chances are you heard it in Grainger’s arrangement (Irish Tune on County Derry) first. How about the child’s song “What do you do if you can’t find a loo in an English country garden”? It was first arranged by Grainger for piano, then later arranged for orchestra and then wind band which turned out to be extremely popular. At any rate Country Gardens ultimately became the piece Grainger is now most remembered for, and was so popular with audiences in the early 20th century it became a staple encore for Grainger’s piano recitals. And similar to Rachmaninov’s C sharp minor prelude, Grainger eventually came to loathe the piece because of its popularity.

If there was anything that he loathed more than his arrangement of Country Gardens, it was the piano itself. Although he was one of the most brilliant pianists of his time, he dismissed the piano as a “box full of hammers and strings”. He was also known for rushing to his piano recitals at the very last minute by foot or bike and leaping over the piano for a grand entrance. However, despite the fact that a Grainger recital was far from note-perfect, his technique and vivacity was evident whatever he played, whether his own arrangements or pieces by other composers.

As is the case for many virtuoso pianist-composers, their compositions have to reflect at least some of their facility on the piano, and Grainger’s piano music is no exception. Beneath the deceptively simple and innocent Country Gardens, various technical hurdles await the unwary amateur in the form of gigantic leaps and intricate voicing, not to mention the speed Grainger instructs the pianist to play it. In Dahomey, a piece filled with cakewalk rhythms and glissandi of possibly every type, is simply a joy to hear but certainly not painless to play, and only a few pianists have managed to pull it off satisfactorily.

Besides the technique required, there’s also the array of interesting markings that one needs to pay attention to when playing Grainger’s music. First of all he never wrote his directions in other language other than English (so ritardando becomes “slow off”, molto crescendo becomes “louden lots” and so on). And then there are the markings themselves–even in an innocent enough folk tune of Country Gardens Grainger’s top end of the dynamic range goes up to ffff (even Mahler was fff at the most!), and he instructs the pianist to play, at some points, “violently” and even using the fist to hammer a B flat.

These performance directions, of course, reflected Grainger the person. He was fascinated by Nordic culture (partly because of his friendship with Grieg and his brief stay there) and apparently felt a certain superiority being Nordic–his English, which he termed “blue-eyed English”, reflected Nordic word-forms.  His piano compositions, using his language, were “dished up” for the piano. Also, the somewhat peculiar directions in Country Gardens at least partly reflected Grainger’s sadomasochistic interests which he shared and practiced with his wife, and was derived from the physical abuse the young Percy was subjected to by his mother.  His interest led him to keep a diary documenting the rather gruesome practices with his wife.

Here is Grainger’s In Dahomey, played by the unbeatable Marc-André Hamelin, to conclude this short biography.


Grainger the pianist

Grainger left behind a large body of his piano recordings, and the most common and comprehensive collection of them today is the complete 78-rpm recordings on APR remastered by Ward Marston.  An album of Grainger’s piano roll recordings also exists on Nimbus, and although its credibility can be doubted, it surely should be considered a worthy document of Grainger’s pianism.

Grainger the composer

Grainger’s complete piano music has been recorded by Martin Jones on Nimbus in a 5-CD set called “Dished up for piano”, and while the sound quality leaves something to be desired, Jones’ sensitive pianism and bountiful technique makes it a worthy must-have for Grainger aficionados and merits my recommendation.  However, for the last word in great pianism, look no further than Marc-André Hamelin’s collection of Grainger’s piano works on Hyperion.  His technique allows the most difficult of passages to be tossed off with consummate ease, yet his attention to voicing and his sonority makes it an extremely thoughtful and enjoyable listen.  Coupled with state-of-the-art sonics, it is THE Grainger album to have.

Here is a short list of recommended recordings, including those of his orchestral works.

Grainger:  Piano Music (Marc-André Hamelin, Hyperion)

Grainger:  Rambles and Reflections (Piers Lane, Hyperion)

Grainger:  The Complete Piano Music (Martin Jones, Nimbus)

Grainger:  Country Gardens and other piano favorites (Classics for Pleasure)

An Introduction to Percy Grainger (Chandos)

The Grainger Edition (Chandos)

Eugene List plays Grainger (Vanguard)


Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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