Top Ear

The Not-Always-Best of Percy Grainger? Never mind

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Jeremy Lee writes

Don’t get me wrong, many of the items here are the best of Percy Grainger, such as the two versions of the ubiquitous Country Gardens that start and end the programme (piano and orchestra, respectively), the charming Scotch Strathspey and Reel (a work that I incidentally arranged for saxophone octet), the various marches and dances (Gum-Sucker’s March, Mock Morris, Shepherd’s Hey) and his Gershwin arrangements (of The Man I Love and Love Walked In).  However, as I see it, many others aren’t either necessary or convincing.  Surely Colheen Dhas, Willow Willow, Beautiful Fresh Flower, Cradle Song, Lord Peter’s Stable Boy and The Nightingale and the Two Sisters can be replaced with more well-known items such as Lincolnshire Posy, I’m Seventeen Come Sunday, In Dahomey and Ramble on Love?  Besides, Blithe Bells, an arrangement of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, is more than a bit cheesy, and I’m sorry, but I couldn’t stand the orchestral version of Irish Tune from County Derry–the piano version is infinitely better.

Thankfully this is about the only musical criticism I can lay upon this disc because the rest is pretty wonderful, and all the performances are extremely convincing.  Leslie Howard plays the solo piano items, and while he doesn’t have the technique of Marc-André Hamelin (who does?) he pulls them off rather well, although I would not single out any item as being particularly distinctive.  Meanwhile, the orchestral works are split between John Hopkins and Geoffrey Simon conducting the Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide Symphony Orchestras respectively.  The orchestras play exceedingly well (notwithstanding rough edges at times–you don’t expect them to be the Vienna Philharmonic!) and they capture the charm, humor, gusto, energy, snap and violence of their countryman’s music with authoritative authenticity.  I must single out a track from this disc:  the Shepherd’s Hey arranged for orchestra, because in my opinion no other version comes close to this one as expressing the music’s boundless rusticity and energy with such high spirits.  I must have heard this track for at least 10 times (in 2 days!), and I truly hope that you will get as much joy from it as I did.  The sonics are strange:  they are very good for the purely orchestral or solo pieces, but when it comes to an orchestral piece where an orchestral piano is required, the sonics become oddly hollow and reverberant.

Mostly lovely stuff then, and the bottom line is that Grainger has always been one of my favorite composers because of his immediately accessible tunes and wild imagination while largely keeping to the parameters of fine music tradition that differentiates his music with what we call “light music”.  No good music collection is complete with at least an album of his music, and despite some items that could have been better chosen here or there, given Eloquence’s budget price, if you don’t already have a Grainger album, consider adding this fine release to your library.


  • Album name:  The Best of Percy Grainger
  • Performers:  Leslie Howard (piano);  John Hopkins;  Geoffrey Simon (conductors);  Adelaide Symphony Orchestra;  Melbourne Symphony Orchestra;  Sydney Symphony Orchestra
  • Label:  Eloquence 465 818-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  70:27

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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