From the Archives: the Grainger You’ve Never Heard

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Published: 18th November, 2017

The name of Penelope Thwaites is inevitably associated with that of Percy Grainger, both for her scholarship and always-welcome visits back to Melbourne to perform. On this trip Thwaites gave us a lecture, a conversation and a unique concept for her concert, The Grainger You’ve Never Heard. This ventured far beyond a piano recital, drawing in many musicians from ANAM with strings, brass, winds and even percussion represented as the program progressed.

In fact some items were familiar but were heard in different conformations, although in a nicely judged program the final work at least was excitingly new. But we had to look no further than the opening work, The Duke of Marlborough Fanfare, for a new insight into Australia’s great composer. As the title suggests this was played by brass instruments and one percussionist. ANAM alumni Daniel Henderson gave a clarion-like leadership to the group, which as a whole presented a sound that would not have been lost even in the much larger adjoining Elisabeth Murdoch hall.

Grainger’s extensive opus for the piano was acknowledged from hereon in, with two pianos positioned at the centre of the Salon space. For Green Bushes, Thwaites occupied one while Adam McMillan and Andrew Leathwick companionably shared the other. All three players were respectful of each other’s contribution so that the piece had the feel of a round, with rich harmony and a brilliant scale to finish.

The pianists then gave way to a string ensemble with flautist Kim Faulkner and cor anglais David Reichelt for My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone, rich languorous music that luxuriated in the Salon acoustics. But it was soon back to the piano for The Widow’s Party March, a work of Grainger’s that many had heard … but not played by six hands! Having three pianists certainly added resonance and a joyous sound to the music as well as a dramatic finish, but equally impressive were the beautifully timed delicate phrases in the piece.

The Zanzibar Boat Song was inspired by Rudyard Kipling, so Thwaites told us, and was to suggest “the lilting feeling of boats”. Thwaites herself had the melody to start and established the gently rocking rhythm which was picked up by the other pianists also on stage … all five of them! It was hard to concentrate on the melody rather than the novelty of 12 hands playing simultaneously, but the melody was never lost, and the ending sounded like a series of bells pealing. It was lovely music, and a second piece for this number of pianists was welcome. This was Random Round, which was far more challenging to begin in terms of speed, rhythm, and syncopation, all the while keeping the melody to the fore. Far from sounding “random” this appeared to be very well thought out and rehearsed to perfection.

At last came music that truly could be called the Grainger we’d never heard. Free Music was just as it sounded. Music for string quartet, it had the first violin sounding quite electronic and certainly ahead of Grainger’s time. Confidently executed, it was nevertheless not immediately appealing, unlike the popular Molly on the Shore, a work perhaps “never heard” before played by a string quartet. Alexandra Partridge’s warm cello was particularly noticeable in this little gem.

The Australian premiere of a work by the 13 year-old Grainger, Youthful Piano Concerto Movement was an inspired choice to round off the program. The existing two-piano work was recently orchestrated by Benjamin Woodgates and, dating from 1896, gives an insight into the early musical influences on the young musician. Beginning with an almost baroque-sounding precision the concerto soon displayed some Mozartian elements, while the soloist (Thwaites) had a part that could have been inspired by the famous 19th century Romantic piano works. It could have been a pastiche but was instead an exciting display of the musicality of the young Percy Grainger, and fulfilled the promise of being Grainger we’d never heard.

The concerto was also, like the entire program, enjoyable to hear, thanks in large part to the musicians performing with Penelope Thwaites, Grainger’s great ambassador at home and abroad.

First published on Classic Melbourne  25/5/2015

Learn more on Graham Abbott’s Keys to Music on November 20, 2017.