★★★☆☆

Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961) was an ambiguous presence in Australian music, both as a man and a composer. A sensational concert pianist in his youth (though not one to take other composers’ score markings too seriously), he befriended Grieg and Delius, and achieved considerable success in America (eventually he took US citizenship). Post-World War II he became the forgotten figure described by Barry Humphries in his memoirs: shuffling around Melbourne, struggling to maintain a Grainger museum that housed his manuscripts, home-made “music machines” and a large collection of whips and sex toys.

Grainger saw himself as the future of Australian music. Certainly, he wrote a great number of musical arrangements, or ‘rambles’ as he called them (such an English word!). Most of the 61 tracks on these discs are arrangements of British folksongs, like Shepherd’s Hey, My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone, and famously English Country Gardens. They recall a world of Empire Day, folk dancing, and bland radio programmes for schools that was in its death throes when I was a kid. Imaginatively written for the piano though Grainger’s arrangements are, and as lovingly performed as they are here by Australian pianist Leslie Howard, those associations render them stultifying after a while (at least to me). 

Grainger’s non-folksy music is more interesting, although there is less of it. The major piece in this collection is The Warriors, a score for an “imaginary ballet” commissioned by Beecham and composed in 1916. An orchestral version exists but here we have an arrangement for two pianos/six hands and a peculiarly Ivesian offstage brass ensemble. By the standards of the time the score is very modern. Delius’s influence is present in the chromatic harmonies, but I also hear a touch of ragtime in some of the syncopated passages. This set also includes Grainger’s transcriptions of songs by Dowland, Fauré and Gershwin (but not his Porgy and Bess ‘ramble’). 

These recordings first appeared in the mid-1970s. Leslie Howard plays the solo works with the same fastidious care he would lavish on Chopin, and perfectly captures that blend of the exuberant and the twee that characterises Grainger’s muse. David Stanhope and Geoffrey Parsons give sterling support, while Stanhope provides lucid notes on the music. The sound quality remains excellent.

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