Grainger Edition 19 CD

Now that we can hear the Grainger Edition in its entirety, it is possible to appreciate just what a vast, labyrinthine, and repetitive project Chandos undertook in recording what I assume is Grainger’s entire compositional output—I am not a scholar of the great man’s work and I admit to not knowing if anything has been omitted, but his habit of issuing the same work in a number of formats must make exhaustiveness almost impossible. Certainly quite a number of his titles recur from disc to disc—even the enormous work the Warriors appears both as an orchestral and two-piano score. Doubtless for practical reasons Chandos have issued the works in collections organised by instrumentation, which has the benefit of assisting the listener with assimilating such a huge and, at least initially, rather disorganised-seeming oeuvre. Disorganised because Grainger eschewed the traditional musical forms: he wrote no symphonies, tone-poems, string quartets, or any of the usual concert forms. He did not even write himself a piano concerto, or anything resembling one.

Indeed, my experience, after several weeks of dipping into the Grainger cornucopia is still one of bewilderment. Here be miracles, indeed: the orchestral and wind orchestra versions of the idiosyncratically-titled the Power of Rome and the Christian Heart display astonishing orchestrations, closely rivalled by the instrumental weirdness of the famous Lincolnshire Posy or the Warriors. But, here also be small gems, odd offhand rather characterless arrangements, strange futurisms, back-slappingly hail-fellow folk-song arrangements, and even a single example of the much-discussed but rarely heard Free Music. To be honest, I had not expected the music to have as consistent and (mostly) distinctive a sound—a recognisable Grainger musical personality. But the lack of large milestones in his output makes it difficult to navigate through the music, I frequently ended up merely sitting back and allowing it to wash over me. So far I have not, beyond his gradual abandonment of late-nineteenth century tritenesses, noticed any evolution in his work. And Grainger’s adoption of vulgar, cheesy, gestures is often knowingly anti-academic nose-thumbing, so perhaps I should qualify and say his gradual abandonment of ingenuous tritenesses.

My bewilderment is partly a consequence of the way the nineteen CDs are annotated. Grainger’s repetitiveness has made Chandos adopt the unusual expedient in their liner notes of listing the works alphabetically rather than in running order, which, while it makes sense for pieces which appear on several CDs, is truly annoying as one hops around the nearly two-hundred-page booklet trying to follow the musical trail. This is exacerbated by Chandos’ strange decision not to list the tracks for each CD on the backs of their slipcases, so one is reliant on the front of the booklet for the tracklisting, too. I found myself trying to hold it open at three different pages during the texted music. Unsurprisingly, no small number of the works are designated as première recording, or just as often première recording in this version. The designations of the CDs reveal Grainger’s primary preoccupations: three CDs of Orchestral Works, four CDs of Works for Chorus and orchestra and one of unaccompanied choruses, two CDs or Works for Wind Orchestra, two CDs of Works for Chamber Orchestra, three of Songs, and four CDs of piano material. And while the first Chamber Ensemble CD features string quartet textures, the second is wildly varied with frequent use of that most evocative instrument, the harmonium. Every now and again he presents an example of jaw-droppingly bad taste, such as his hilariously loathsome Blithe Bells in the Wind Orchestra version, complete with trombone portamenti. Almost makes one forgive Godowsky.

On the whole, I have enjoyed this music very much more than I expected, not least in part due to the magnificent and enthusiastic performances—it is a shame that Grainger was unable to experience this large and wholesome vindication of his musical vision. For vision it clearly was, of an utterly quixotic utopian, democratised, music; his influence was huge, but not in the way he intended, perhaps (I can’t help feeling that his closest musical kin, albeit unintentionally, was Cornelius Cardew). This box-set is a sumptuous feast of many courses which I hope will tempt curious music-lovers.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.