If you want to meet the man, says the British-Australian pianist, try really listening to his music.
An English musician friend, Dr William Reed, once asked me “You’re Australian, why don’t you play some Grainger?” A friend had a score so I took a look at it, and thought “This is quite tricky, I think I’ll stick to Bartók.” I didn’t follow it up until, like a lot of people, I was given a copy of an LP that Benjamin Britten produced in 1969 called Salute to Percy Grainger. That recording absolutely got me hooked. I read two biographies and thought Grainger would make an interesting lecture recital, and so I learned about 15 of the pieces.
Penelope Thwaites and Timothy Young
Later on I became a member of the Grainger Society, and one of them, Barry Peter Ould, turned out to have a considerable collection of Grainger’s music. Barry had been able to go over to White Plains where Grainger’s widow was still living and bring back some scores from her archive. He built-up a detailed knowledge, not as a practising musician, but as a publisher and music enthusiast, and now he’s got a greater knowledge of Grainger’s output than anybody I know. We’ve worked a lot together, because I’ve been playing the music and, with considerable editing, Barry has been producing scores.
Our box set on Heritage has now been reissued with a fourth volume added in order to complete the two piano repertoire. John Lavender and I played for many of these 20 or so years ago with Barry around as a consultant. My late husband was a great enthusiast and managed to get off his work as a lawyer, so he and Barry were turning the pages for us. We were all of us fascinated by the things that were emerging from this extraordinary music.
We recorded volumes 1 and 2 in 1989, while volume 3 was added in 1993 and we were lucky to get a number of excellent reviews. I don’t believe anybody else was recording the two piano music back then. This new collection, which I play with Timothy Young, has about 40 tracks, not found anywhere else. Research and progress means that new things are discovered all the time, and Barry has compiled the most complete catalogue to date.
Grainger revisited pieces again and again so, for example, in the two piano repertoire you get full blown two piano versions of his In a Nutshell Suite and A Lincolnshire Posy. I suppose you could liken them to different productions of the same opera, and because you’re listening to them in a different genre, different things emerge, allowing you to analyse what is going on in the music more easily. The orchestral version might have more colour, but with two pianos sometimes the contrapuntal lines and the themes are clearer.
In terms of new Grainger pieces there were quite a few in volumes 1 to 3. In volume 4, the most substantial new title is Klavierstück, which was a concerto movement Grainger wrote when he was nearly 14 for two pianos. That required a lot of editing because Grainger, who was a young boy, had not put in any dynamic markings. It’s fascinating really, and a lovely piece, and works extremely well on two pianos.
I think most of Grainger’s original piano music has been recorded now, but there’s a great chunk of the arrangements that Grainger made of other people’s music that hasn’t been. Although they are of all manner of different works, lots of these arrangements have a real Grainger-esque quality about them. Purists may turn up their noses, but he really transforms them and many emerge as very beautiful pieces. Some may say they don’t want to listen to that, but I think a lot of others will really enjoy it. After all, I like to think that it’s a free country!
Having worked through so many of his pieces over the years, it seems to me that you really only meet Percy Grainger the man through his music. For example, so many of his works have a special tenderness about them. And some have an absolutely ecstatic quality to them. Grainger had an incredibly vitality and lived life with great intensity. He never composed along expected lines, but he wanted to go about things afresh in all of his work. On the piano, one tries to reflect all of that hard work. That’s why physically it’s exhausting music to play, but so rewarding.
Percy Grainger’s Complete Works for Four Hands, Two Pianos is out now on Heritage