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 Recording of the Week  Percy Grainger

2011 marks the fiftieth anniversary of death of the Australian-born composer and pianist Percy Grainger. Born in the suburbs of Melbourne in 1882 he had an unconventional upbringing being mainly schooled at home by his mother, and developed quickly as a pianist. He came to Europe at the age of just 13 to study in Frankfurt and moved on to London in 1901. Here he combined a busy career as a concert pianist with his interest in folk song collection – a passion which would occupy him for much of the rest of his life. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Grainger moved to New York, where he really started to establish himself as a composer and arranger. He became an American citizen in 1918 and lived in the United States for the rest of his life.

Percy Grainger
Percy Grainger

Grainger’s best known works are probably his folksong arrangements but it is important not to dismiss them as mere arrangements as, although he didn’t come up with the main tune for pieces like ‘Country Gardens’ or ‘Molly on the Shore’, the imagination and inventiveness which he demonstrates with elements like ravishing counter-melodies, impressive harmonies, inspired instrumentation and rhythmic variety is remarkable. Indeed, Benjamin Britten (a renowned folksong arranger himself) exclaimed “In the art of folksong arrangements, Grainger is my master!”. However, Grainger’s ability as a composer actually went far beyond these arrangements. He was in many ways ahead of his time, experimenting with compositional techniques like ‘chance’ before composers like John Cage were even born. He wrote a considerable amount of music in a wide variety of styles and since his death it is great to see that his reputation as a composer seems to have been steadily growing.

One reason for that is the superb ‘Grainger Edition’ on Chandos Records. They have now reached 19 volumes and the series features much of Grainger’s orchestral, chamber, solo song, solo piano, choral and wind band music. There is some really terrific music on here, all very approachable and distinctive, and some which really deserves to be better known. To mark the anniversary, Chandos have just re-issued those recordings as a 19 CDs set, and with over twenty-one hours of music at a very attractive price it will hopefully further spread the word about the still under-rated composer.

As a tribute to Percy Grainger the virtuoso pianist, APR have just issued a 5-disc set of his complete 78-rpm solo recordings, made between 1908 and 1945. As the informative notes point out, Grainger was the most reluctant of virtuosos, always wishing that he would be remembered primarily as a composer, but as these recordings demonstrate his fame as a performer during his lifetime was well merited. These are old recordings, so despite the excellent work of Ward Marston with the transfers, they will appeal mainly to people wishing to explore and understand a little more about Grainger the performer. Chopin, Schumann and Brahms are all well represented, and amongst other composers there are (of course) a number of tracks of Grainger playing his own compositions.

In addition to the two important sets mentioned above I’ve also included below three more modest recommendations which will hopefully all serve as good introductions to this fascinating composer.

Dame Margaret Price

It is with much sadness that I have to report the death of the Welsh soprano Dame Margaret Price, who died at her home last Friday at the age of 69. She will be warmly remembered as a pure, lyric soprano who excelled in Mozart, but also gave some terrific lieder recitals.

She recorded for a number of labels but, performing at a time when people like Sutherland and Tebaldi were at their prime, her discography is not as large as it should be. You can browse her currently available recordings here.

Percy Grainger: Complete Solo 78rpm Recordings 1908-1945

Works by Brahms, Chopin, Schumann and a number of others

Percy Grainger (piano)

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Grainger: Jungle Book (and other choral works)

John Mark Ainsley (tenor) & David Wilson-hnson (baritone), Polyphony, Stephen Layton

Available Format: CD

Salute To Percy Grainger

Peter Pears (tenor), Anna Reynolds (mezzo-soprano) & John Shirley Quirk (baritone), Ambrosian Singers, Wandsworth Boys’ Choir & Linden Singers, Benjamin Britten & Steuart Bedford

Available Format: CD

An introduction to Percy Grainger

Drawn for Chandos's Grainger Edition this disc does exactly what it says on the cover.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC