Grainger: The Complete Piano Music / Martin Jones

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An essential box set of Graingeresque delight. 2011 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Percy Grainger’s death and the event has witnessed the reissue of a...
An essential box set of Graingeresque delight.

2011 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Percy Grainger’s death and the event has witnessed the reissue of a number of important recordings. This isn’t one such, because it’s remained in the Nimbus catalogue throughout, but I did want to draw brief attention to this super-abundant, characterful, and wholly marvellous five CD set of the complete piano music, played by the indefatigable, stylistically apt Martin Jones. He’s one of the undersung masters of a variety of repertoire – as good in Iberian music as he is in British, I’d suggest.
Here his encyclopaedic survey acts as a modern day cornerstone. You should hear his recordings, if you are excited by Grainger, and compare and contrast them with the composer’s own recordings which fortunately – all the 78s at any rate – have recently been reissued in a five CD set by APR [7501]. The experience is both exciting and diverting. But Grainger only recorded (and re-recorded) a fraction of his own pieces, whereas Jones has collared the lot. And how!
The first disc starts with some classic Grainger; the brio, clarity and speed of Jones’s take on Handel in the Strand is a tonic whilst To a Nordic Princess rises to a passionate pitch of assertion. In a Nutshell is a suite the charms of which seldom pall, and in this performance Jones crafts an unusually expressive Pastoral, slow and spare then incrementally building up in sonority, power and speed. The playful and vibrant badinage of The Immovable Do is especially well realised – one of the very best moments in this opening disc - though the reflective and beautiful Colonial Song runs it, very differently, close. Those who have never come across the roistering cakewalk of In Dahomey are in for a treat.
The second disc is given over to arrangements. To a degree it’s of less pressing interest to the Grainger novice, but it’s essential ground for those who want to understand his enthusiasms and the musical means by which he conveyed them. The opening of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto makes some fearsome demands on the intrepid solo pianist whereas the Brahms Cradle song that cannily follows it is delightfully spun – lissom legato, not lion-hearted virtuosity. His arrangement of Nimrod is probably quite well known but that of Rachmaninoff – the finale of the Second Concerto – probably less so. I must admit that the Dowland transcription, of Now, O now, I needs must part, is absolutely irresistible in Jones’s performance. He really does have the touch for refinement in these works. Of the other works, it’s interesting to contrast Grainger’s own 1929 78 of the Rosenkavalier with Jones’s. Then there’s the convoluted tribute to Stephen Foster, the well-known Bach Blithe Bells and the same composer’s Fugue in A minor – it reminds one of Bach’s importance to Grainger, as performer and composer.
The third disc offers 28 examples of Graingeresque delight. Some are very concise folk-songs and traditional songs, others better known examples of his art. Let me just suggest a few which I think especially illuminating or unusual. If you’ve not come across The Merry King, try to do so, and you won’t regret it; it’s hauntingly beautiful. A Jutish Melody was recorded by Grainger in one of his very rarest 78s – a double-sided 1929 Columbia. He takes it a touch faster than Jones. Spoon River is played with vibrancy but Jones is ever alert as to treble colouration. There are also the simple and complex versions of One more day my John.
The fourth disc is a curious collection but that only makes it the more valuable for completists. We have Stanford’s Four Irish Dances, the deeply sensitive Fauré songs – what a shame Grainger didn’t record them – and the opening movement transcription of the Schumann Piano Concerto, which, like the Rachmaninoff, is probably best known by close readers of Grainger’s work in this field – a virtuosic single-voiced domestication, as it were, of the concerto literature. Another such is the better remembered Grieg Concerto first movement, also in this disc. His homage to Delius comes via the Air and Dance – but there are plenty of things to occupy the eager ears in this disc. Uppermost amongst them we find Angelus ad Virginem, a lovely carol, and then some of Grainger’s early works. These include the Schumannesque Klavierstücke in E, and the other early pieces which are variously awkward and Brahmsian or, in the case of the one in B flat, incomplete. There’s also the one in D, which Grainger dedicated to his father. The Bigelow March, an insouciant piece, was actually written by Ella Grainger, Percy’s wife.
The final disc has bigger works, ending with The Warriors. It also includes those pieces written for four hands on one piano, four on two pianos, six on one piano and six on two pianos. Children's March: "Over the Hills and Far Away" is a sonorous and ebullient example of Martin Jones and Richard McMahon playing on two pianos. But all these pieces are richly exciting and attractive. In the midst of all this don’t overlook the calm solo Grainger fashioned from William Byrd – The Carman’s Whistle or indeed Gershwin’s Embraceable You. The resilience of the performers and the clarity of the six-handed, two-piano, arrangement of The Warriors elevates it to a must-hear experience.
I hope this has given some indication of why this is so essential a box for admirers of the composer. I appreciate that Nimbus’s sound in these 1989-91 recordings is not to everyone’s tastes, but it will certainly do, and the booklet notes are classy. What a splendid undertaking this was.
-- Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: October 01, 1996

  • UPC: 710357176722

  • Catalog Number: NI1767

  • Label: Nimbus

  • Number of Discs: 5

  • Composer: Anonymous, Charles Villiers Stanford, Edvard Grieg, Frederick Delius, Gabriel Fauré, George Frideric Handel, George Gershwin, Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms, John Dowland, Percy Aldridge Grainger, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Robert Schumann, Sergei Rachmaninov, Sir Edward Elgar, Traditional, William Byrd

  • Performer: Martin Jones, Philip Martin, Richard McMahon