Londonderry Air: The Music of Percy Grainger Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra / John Eliot Gardiner (Philips 446 657 2)

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The Independent Culture
The original title for this amazing collection was "Songs and Dancing Ballads". I liked that. When Percy Grainger took up a folksong, a shanty, a hymn, a Scottish reel, an Irish jig, a Swinburne poem, a Kipling ballad, hell, even the Song of Solomon, the whole world was turned on its head to sing and dance. No one ever second guessed him, or tried to understand him. He was - he is - the complete original. The range of colour and expression here is bewildering: the bad and the beautiful, the wild and wacky, the dreamy and the nostalgic. You don't know whether to laugh or cry, or both. The genius is in the eccentricity. Just expect the unexpected. Like Shallow Brown - a sea shanty with the reach of a spiritual. Grainger sets it like the sailors will have yelled it, the vocal line stretching and distorting, straining to be heard over furious oceanic tremolandos (or "wogglings" - Grainger's word) in strings and multiple "pluckers" - guitars, banjos. You've never heard anything remotely like it and that's a promise.

Love Verses from The Song of Solomon, an inquisitive, lush, oddly erotic setting (harmony and texture conveying a fusty Old Testament amplitude - replete, I might add, with harmonium), was made while he was still a teenager. The child was precocious. The child was rude. The riotous I'm Seventeen Come Sunday is absolutely brilliant, the vocal lines themselves nimbly dancing their way to a rowdy, syncopated climax of beery chanting with Grainger's beloved wind band weighing in heavily to kick us over the traces.

And there's much more where that came from. Imagine Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races" conceived by Grainger to sound like Ives. That's Tribute to Foster and yes, the band plays on, all the way to Danbury. The really startling thing about these settings is the way in which Grainger unlocks the inner-life of each text, each melody. He'll digest it, understand it, respect it, and then in his response - which is nothing if not personal - he'll elaborate, tweaking at our imaginations, revealing as little or as much subtext as he deems appropriate.

Like Britten, in his folksong settings, Grainger knew how and when to get out of the way. The plaintive Brigg Fair is no more, no less than the tenor solo and near wordless chorus will allow us - a tune so precious to Grainger that even the harmony is almost an intrusion. Then again, the classic Londonderry Air - no words, just voices -tenders a harmony so rich, so integrated, that it always shrouds the melody in our imaginations.

Grainger is becoming something of a crusade for John Eliot Gardiner. Good on him. He opts here for the most opulent of Grainger's so-called "elastic" scorings, and is richly repaid for it. His Monteverdi Choir are predictably terrific, hot in their response to his rhythmic zest, wonderfully articulate, poised, fine tuned - fireside cosy, cathedral rich, or just plain raucous. It's only April, but come December this will be among my Pick of the Year. That good. ES

"With me rue rum ray, Fother didle ay," oom-pah brass and Mummerset accents, the English Country Gardiner Orchestra - can this really be the same John Eliot Gardiner, the Toscanini of the period instrument movement? In fact, the Grainger-Gardiner connection runs deeper than you might think. The conductor's great uncle, Balfour Gardiner, was a member of Grainger's "Frankfurt Gang", and the young John Eliot remembers the 67-year-old Grainger prancing into the house in towelling suit and turban. Believe it or not, that was the beginning of a life-long love for the man and his music. This disc is the result.

Surprisingly, Gardiner has managed to include two CD premieres and four world premieres in this recital. It's hard to believe that the sinister Father and Daughter and the volcanically emotional The Bride's Tragedy have never been heard in public before - unless Grainger's fans thought they were just too revealing (Grainger's sado-masochistic sexual peccadilloes are still a touchy subject). In which case, all credit to Gardiner for being so refreshingly unsqueamish. The Bride's Tragedy is specially powerful - dark, pained, embittered perhaps, but with a strange kind of nobility. The disc is well worth having just for these new pieces. I'm not so sure about the more popular stuff though. The singing in I'm Seventeen Come Sunday is as robust and crisp as one would expect from the Monteverdi Choir, but the oo-arr-aying is very studied - a frisson of embarrassment if not an outright cringe. As in his recent Israel in Egypt, Gardiner entrusts Grainger's solo writing to choir members rather than to star singers; in one or two places the voices do show the strain. But would the oceanic Shallow Brown be more, or less moving with a polished operatic alto? Grainger might well have preferred the touch of all-too-human frailty to a cultivated "voice beautiful". In the end, there is something slightly bizarre about this disc, but how could it be otherwise? After all, we are talking about one of this century's great musical misfits. SJ

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