Grainger: Complete Music for Wind Band, Vol. 1 / Engeset, Royal Norwegian Navy Band

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Listen to the Naxos Podcast to learn more about this release Let me say without delay that this is one of those Naxos discs which...
Listen to the Naxos Podcast to learn more about this release

Let me say without delay that this is one of those Naxos discs which on so many different levels puts offerings released by bigger, more expensively marketed artist-driven labels to shame. Fascinating and unusual repertoire, superbly performed, atmospherically recorded and with splendidly detailed notes which have been thoroughly and enthusiastically researched (by Bjarte Engeset, the conductor, in fact), this disc is a labour of love, and an absolute winner from first note to last. Indeed, one of the best things about it is the two words that conclude its title – ‘Volume 1’, implying that more will follow.

Percy Grainger: if only I’d fully realised what a maverick he was when I was in my teens. I knew his name from childhood because my mum pointed out that he wrote Country Gardens, a tune that used to turn up with ubiquity accompanying the test-card before or after Watch with Mother. Accordingly, I grew up believing he wrote light music and trifles; the version of Country Gardens here is anything but ‘light’- it’s positively Ivesian! I’m sure there will be many older listeners like me whose Grainger ‘epiphany’ occurred when they acquired the classic Decca LP ‘Salute to Grainger’ with Britten, Pears and the good old ECO. The weirdness of Scotch, Strathspey and Reel; the incredible syncopations of Lost Lady Found; the strummed instruments in Shallow Brown! The real attraction to me of this music was in its extraordinary colours. There have been sporadic classic issues of Grainger over the years – the superb John Eliot Gardiner/Monteverdi Choir disc ‘Londonderry Air’ on Phillips (446 657-2); the Hickox et al 19 CD box on Chandos (MWI review); last year’s superb ‘Folk Music’ album by Claire Booth and Christopher Glynn on Avie. I couldn’t live without any of them. Nor this life-enhancing new Naxos disc.

While on the face of it the focus is on the Wind Band there is plenty of exotic instrumentation on this disc. Grainger was legendarily pedantic about what he wanted (not least in his score-markings- he reinvented the language!) and Engeset takes him completely at his word here, making use of (among other things): a steel marimbaphone, a Hammond Organ, Swiss hand bells, and tin whistles. What an ear Grainger must have had – because the combinations he chooses ALWAYS seem to work. The best discs tend to be the ones that are sensitively mixed – the Gardiner disc was a model in that regard, and the engineers here (take a bow Lars Nilsson and Michael Dahlvid) do not miss a trick.

So, within the first five seconds of Molly on the Shore discerning listeners will know they are in for a treat: the Royal Norwegian Navy Band can definitely ‘do’ Grainger. The playing is crisp, fresh and fleet. It is patently obvious that Engeset is a convert – he shapes Molly so lovingly. There are some wonderful saxophone solos and thrilling percussion, in particular the dainty colours of the twinkling steel marimbaphone. The unassumingly titled Bell Piece (Grainger’s subtitle is more detailed and more, well, Grainger….) is incontrovertibly gorgeous. Here the Dowland song is most tenderly sung by the tenor Marius Roth Christensen over a gentle accompaniment, but following its rapt conclusion Grainger spins an extraordinary sonic web in an appendix with the most sublime part for Swiss hand bells that has probably ever been written (not that I am aware of any other). Engeset tells us this part was expressly written for Grainger’s wife Ella. I would say this work should be far more popular although it’s unlikely to ever become a concert staple as one assumes Swiss hand bells do not grow on (Swiss hand bell) trees. Next is the Marching Song of Democracy in its band arrangement. The ‘out-of-door spirit’ which Grainger insisted was a pre-requisite for a convincing performance of this work is palpable, as one might expect from this superb Navy band.

Five of Grainger’s ‘Chosen Gems for Winds’, free arrangements of works by other composers are included on the disc. I would argue that J.S. Bach, William Lawes, Goossens, Fauré and Franck would be strange bedfellows in almost any other context. The Bach prelude O Mensch bewein’ dein’ Sünde groß, BWV 622 lends itself most naturally to an arrangement for these forces– needless to say Grainger’s stylistic fingerprints are all over this one, most notably in the inclusion of some gentle percussion. On the other hand, the Lawes Six-part Fantasy and Air here sounds completely novel in this unfamiliar garb. This is the first time this ‘Gem’ has seen the light of day in recording terms. Eugene Goossens’ brief Folk-Tune is actually the melody Rosebud in June and those familiar with Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody will certainly recognise it. Grainger was acquainted with Fauré; his adaptation of the song Sérénade Toscane features a solo euphonium, winsomely played here by Bjørn Bogetvedt.

The delightful Let’s Dance Gay in Green Meadow (Faeroe Island Dance) benefits from some superb percussion writing and some harmonies which sound as if they have been geographically transplanted from the Paris of Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit. The quasi-rhapsodic nature of the more extended Hill Song No 2 occasionally (and unsurprisingly) brings Delius to mind. Engeset’s notes remind us that Grainger was usually pernickety with good reason, here the soft reeds demanded, deliberately produce convincing bagpipe-like sonorities. Hill Song No 2 is one of Grainger’s most haunting inspirations.

As well as Country Gardens and Molly on the Shore, in terms of Grainger’s own perennial favourites we get a rumbustious Shepherd’s Hey, a breezy and rather wistful Walking Tune and a delectably- coloured and truly uplifting Spoon River. While the Irish Tune from County Derry isn’t included in this volume, Grainger’s arrangement of Katharine Parker’s Down Longford Way does feature and occupies similar emotional territory, although the Longford referred to here relates to Parker’s Tasmanian birthplace rather than the Irish county.

The most extended item in this unmissable collection is saved till last, a final ‘Chosen Gem for Winds’. This is an extraordinary arrangement of César Franck’s Chorale no 2 in B minor, for organ. This emerged in 1942 at a time when Grainger was preoccupied with baroque forms; the chaconne-like nature of Franck’s piece intrigued him to such an extent that he produced this rather darkly-coloured, serious transcription. It is again superbly rendered here. It provides a somewhat solemn conclusion to a stirring and at times surprising issue. It is a disc that no Grainger fan will want to miss; I find it hard to imagine that anyone reading this review would fail to respond enthusiastically to its myriad delights.

– MusicWeb International (Richard Hanlon)

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 12, 2018

  • UPC: 747313367979

  • Catalog Number: 8573679

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Percy Aldridge Grainger

  • Conductor: Bjarte Engeset

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Royal Norwegian Navy Band

  • Performer: Royal Norwegian Navy Band, Engeset