Grainger: Jungle Book (CD Review - Gramophone Magazine, 1996)

Here now is the second disc in recent months to bring us face to face with Grainger. His music (or such music as we have in both of these recitals) resembles what I imagine to have been the effect of his physical presence. He opens doors and windows, unleashes sudden bursts of energy, compels a frank response, makes you draw your breath and know you're alive: also, he doesn't stay for long. The catalogue of his works (see The Percy Grainger Companion: Thames & Hudson: 1981) is itself a moving and astonishing record, because his life was so seemingly various and his 'works' ("dishes up", as he would say, in so many guises) were only a part of it.

Only two items are common to this and John Eliot Gardiner's programme on Philips. One is the famous Shallow Brown, and once heard never forgotten. In this, Stephen Layton and Polyphony secure an immediate advantage over Gardiner by virtue of their soloist. Of course we suppose, as Grainger was told, it is the song of a woman newly parted from the sailor she loves and for whose fidelity she pleads: and it is possible that with a woman singer of genius, a Baker or (think of it!) a Butt, it could be a knockout. But the song is what Grainger called a chantey a song of men among men, transferring their own emotion in a way that satisfies both it and their masculine vanity. At all events it sounds better that way. And what a song it is! In Grainger's arrangement, it is as mesmeric as the sea itself: play it in the morning and you're still hearing it at night. With Gardiner, the waves swell and crash more inexorably and the chorus suggest a harsh jeer on the face of coarse reality. But it us this new one that goes to the heart. The soloist is David Wilson-Johnson, who in the book mentioned above contributes the article on Grainger's songs. He opens with a reference to Shallow Brown, "the first... I heard, and I thought its intensity was amazing", and that thought is echoed as he sings it now with all its due complement of passion.

It is, as he also says in that chapter, "difficult to follow in a programme", yet here it serves as a prelude to the Jungle Book songs, which have their vitality in plenty. Rich in harmonies and sonorities, they date from almost any time between 1898 and 1947, and they are wonderfully well performed. In what follows, every item, would bear separate comment, and they all deserve something more than our modern listening habits are likely to give them. We do better with Grainger (as with Webern) to take ourselves back to the days of 78s, listen for three or four minutes at a time, think it over, replay, savour afresh.

A feature of the Hyperion publication that assists in this process and gains another advantage over Gardiner and Philips, is the helpful layout of the booklet: information about each item is given where you want to find it, with the text. A first-rate job has been done by Barry Peter Ould, and if this is an inaugural volume then its successors cannot do better than follow the example of this excellent original.

John B Steane

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