Best known for his piano compositions like Country Gardens and Shepherd's Hey, Percy Grainger was in fact a prolific choral composer. His choral works focus mostly on folk music of Britain, Denmark, Ireland, Scotland, and America. As a folk song "collector," Grainger traveled Europe in search of individuals that could sing these traditional pieces in the original style that had been passed down by oral tradition. The result is a fabulous array of exquisite arrangements for a variety of choir types.
Many of you may recognize I'm Seventeen Come Sunday. Grainger's fun, rollicking arrangement features a stunning brass ensemble and orchestra accompaniment - one of the essential ingredients in many of his folk-song settings, including The Merry Wedding, a bridal dance set to poems from the Faeroe Islands. Remove the orchestra in these tunes, and somehow the soul of the song is missing. However, there are several a cappella arrangements in this recording as well. Brigg Fair and Mo Nighean Dubh are two of these; the former features a tenor soloist reciting the familiar "For it's meeting is a pleasure, and parting is a grief, but an unconstant lover is worse than any thief" amid other stanzas about meeting his love at a fair in August. The mournful melody makes one wonder if he is possible regretting an indiscretion that cost him his true love. Grainger's gorgeous a cappella arrangement of the Gaelic melody in Mo Nighean Dubh is set to words by John Park, and is full of rich harmonies and strong dynamic changes that match the text. The wordless, a cappella setting of Irish Tune from County Derry is familiar to everyone - it is the tune we know as Danny Boy or Londonderry Air. An identical setting was done for band, and both settings feature a section where the melody transfers to the tenors or the low brass. Very unusual, especially for bands. An exquisite arrangement of this well-loved melody.
Love Verses from The Song of Solomon is perhaps the most gorgeous setting of this Biblical text. Grainger did not choose the somewhat overused "Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away" text, instead opting for the perhaps more descriptive and personal sections in chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2. Scored for tenor, baritone, and mezzo-soprano solos, choir, and orchestra, the rich harmonies and Eastern flavor of the work features sweeping choral passages and brilliant climaxes of extraordinarily beautiful sound. The text partners perfectly with the yearning solo, choral, and orchestral parts.
Shallow Brown, for mezzo-soprano soloist and men's choir, tells the tale of a woman's lover, who is leaving her alone as he sails the seas. You can hear the unshed tears in her voice as the ship gets farther away; the men's choir, representing the ship's crew, gradually decrescendos as they travel farther from shore. The orchestra paints an incredibly vivid picture of the swell and surge of the ocean's waves, imitating the intensity of the current, carrying the woman's love away.
Father and Daughter is a rather horrific story, couched in a happy dance-tune, set for double choir and orchestra. The male soloists represent the tense question-and-answer session between the father and daughter, while the choirs obliviously sing the jolly text of this Faeroe Island dancing ballad, "Blithely dance the measure, all ye knights and swains so merrily." The bloody ending to this tale of lies and deceit is foreshadowed by the chaotic unraveling of the orchestra and choir parts. Grainger used this "unraveling" technique in The Bride's Tragedy as well; a heartbreaking story of two lovers drowned while trying to escape a jilted bridegroom and his angry kin. The story is almost Shakespearean in its complicated plot, and, like many Shakespearean tragedies, the terrible ending could have been avoided if everything had gone according to plan. I appreciate the flawed personalities of the characters in the story - their raw emotions are portrayed beautifully in Grainger's arrangement. For example, the bride furiously expresses her anger and frustration to her lover because he did not take her away the day before the wedding, as planned: "My lamp was lit yestreen, Willie, my window gate was wide: but ye came not nigh me, till day came by me and made me not your bride." Another element that makes The Bride's Tragedy so incredible is the second section of the piece - it could almost be called a second movement, it is so different from the first. This section begins when the lovers are overcome by the waves and begin to drown. The tempo slows and the voices take on an unearthly, far-away quality that seems to describe the floating of the bodies underwater and the loss of consciousness as death approaches. Rather gruesome, but certainly emotional and uncomfortably frank. This track is my favorite on the CD.
Scotch Strathspey and Reel is a blending of six Scotch and Irish tunes together with the familiar sea-chanty "What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor" in stunning, chaotic harmony. This setting seems to be incredibly difficult to sing; I therefore find the performance of the men's choir quite impressive. I also appreciate the performance of The Lost Lady Found, an English dance-folksong sung in the original Lincolnshire dialect and style, which is as far from our idea of "proper British pronunciation" as one may get. This so-called improper pronunciation continues in Danny Deever, using words from Rudyard Kipling's Barrack-room Ballads. This grisly-comic "hanging" ballad is scored for small choir or baritone soloist, men's choir, and orchestra. A dramatic march set in dialogue format, telling the story of a traitor's hanging. The drama and upbeat pace continue in Tribute to Foster, Grainger's setting of Camptown Races. The second half of the piece contains additional verses written by Grainger himself, recollecting the times when his own mother sung the song to him as a lullaby.
Another haunting melody is presented in The Three Ravens, an old English set for baritone solo, mixed chorus and five clarinets. The unusual text about a knight and a doe is apparently an allusion to the crucified Christ and his mother Mary. Dramatic dynamic swells and ghostly wails make this another remarkable creation by Grainger.
I hope you have enjoyed reading about this CD; I know you will enjoy the recording even more! You will not be disappointed!