What to make of Percy G. and his music? Actually, the man--piano virtuoso, maker of innovative musical instruments, ethnomusicologist, racist, anti-Semite, alleged sado-masochist--is more interesting to many people than is the music. And the music has just as much of a split personality as the man. The fascinating ballet "The Warriors" is surely more wildly Stravinskian in its use of polyrhythms and emphasis on the percussion section than any other music coming out of England when it was written (1916). Listen to the first movement of "In a Nutshell" from the same year, and you think that this must be the most perfect evocation of the sound of a gamelan orchestra by a Western composer: a fascinating bit of musical orientalism in the vein of Debussy, anticipating the Britten of "Prince of the Pagodas" by four decades or so. But stay tuned for the next movement, and you're in an Edwardian music hall. And we never do get back to the amazing mood of that forward-looking first movement.
There is the visionary "Train Music" (1901) written when Grainger was only 18. Then again, there is Grainger's greatest hit, the orchestral arrangement of his much earlier piano arrangement of "Country Gardens," a lollipop of a work he came to despise.
Probably the most successful music on this disc is "Lincolnshire Posy," a classic suite for military band given its premiere, of all places, in Milwaukee. It's a fine work in the tradition of Gustav Holst's wonderful band suites. But somehow, the regularity of this work doesn't hint at the wayward genius that Grainger evinces in the other large works on this CD.
Rattle and his band take Grainger very seriously, which you need to do in order to produce convincing results. And Grainger would be easy to patronize, but Rattle doesn't do that. Instead, he concentrates on capturing the extraordinary sense of orchestral color Grainger had. He's supported by the bright, wide-ranging sound that always seems to emerge from Birmingham's Symphony Hall. A fascinating disc that, I see, is no longer available from EMI. We can only hope they'll reissue it soon on their budget label.