Grainger: Jungle Book (CD Review - Fanfare USA, 1996)

When I was going through a conventionally turbulent adolescence in the peaceful New York suburb of White Plains, little did I know that Percy Grainger also lived there. I suspect that the music teachers in my junior and senior high schools - yes, Virginia, there were still music teachers in those days - were equally unaware or surely we might have been exposed to more than just "Country Gardens," the sort of "frippery" piece (his word) that Grainger disliked among his own works.

What we hear on both these discs is a fascinating mix of solo and choral song, some of the latter a cappella. With only two items in common, there is little reason not to acquire both CDs. The first item, Shallow Brown, a sea shanty, is specifically to be sung by a man even though the words are a woman's. David Wilson-Johnson's baritone is thus more appropriate, or authentic, than the mezzo on the Philips disc, but that point may be debated, depending on whether one wants the verisimilitude of a woman singing a woman's words, or that of a man singing a sea shanty. The shimmering quality given by the mandolins, mandolas, ukuleles, and guitars is reminiscent of the sea, and then there are Berliozian moments for the strings or winds to indicate perhaps the deeper swells, more strongly after each verse as the ship goes farther away. In this instance, the less aggressive performance (and recording) on Hyperion is more effective, the sea almost palpable in the soft strumming rather than the hard sound under Gardiner.

"The Three Ravens" is a more even match, but generally Gardiner's approach is the snappier, also because some of the items on his disc display an exuberance matched only by the interpretation, like the "Scotch Strathspey and Reel" or the "Tribute to Stephen Foster." But then there are almost none of those snappy items on the Layton disc which has other aims.

Grainger set thirty-three Kipling poems, twenty-two of which were published and eleven of which form the Jungle Book settings a task to which the composer applied himself over fifty-nine years - much of his creative life - just as his contemporary Charles Koechlin also remained enchanted by the Kipling work, over an equally long period. The settings use all the possible combinations of voice and instrument and one remains in awe of the variety of emotion Grainger can portray and evoke with the simplest of means, while we remain barely aware of his use of the most up-to-date compositional techniques. The instrumental choices are often left to the performers, only the sung portions being more prescriptive. The fact that there is little dynamic variation on Layton's disc makes it one that should ideally be listened to over a few sessions, but I don't think I would go as far as John Wiser's praise with faint damn in Fanfare 19:3 of Polyphony’s earlier disc in Hyperion.

Gardiner’s disc is imperative listening as it is impossible not to be swept up by the exhilarating pieces mentioned above which more effectively set off the more reflective pieces such as "Brigg Fair" or "The Three Ravens." Listening to "The Bride's Tragedy" a setting of Swinburne, or Kipling’s "Danny Deever" calls forth comparison to Ives. The notes to both discs are excellent, Barry Peter Ould for Hyperion commenting extensively on each section, Wilfrid Mellers more general but no less perspicacious on Philips.

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