Friday, September 6, 2013

Clingingly & Well to the Fore*

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Youthful Rapture: Chamber Music of Percy Grainger. It seems almost too easy to like the sprightly, tightly controlled yet loose-limbed music of this Anglo-Australian genius. Even his rare minor-key pieces seem to be smiling, and even his grandest, most wrenching adagios have spring in their step and a lightness in their touch. But if there's ever been a musician who argues for music as an art outside of time or trend, it's this fair-haired contemporary of the thorny serialists and severe modernists that made the 20th century the age of dissonance and discontent. Indeed, there's little in Grainger's prodigious catalogue of chamber and orchestral pieces that would have been out of place in a parlor or concert hall some 150 years before his time.

So what gives his limber, folksy, irrepressibly tuneful music its uncanny brilliance and fresh sparkle? Phrased that way, the question answers itself, I guess. Though he was a much different composer than Mozart--in ambition, in temperament, in popular fortune--he strikes me as the only serious heir to the whirring, purring, seemingly effortless effusion of joy that was Wolfgang's birthright.

I was introduced to his music by its artful use in Merchant Ivory's greatest film, Howards End, and though I didn't initially sense the appropriateness of an Australian supplying tunes for an Indian/American adaptation of the quintessential novel about England's dubious claim to its own homeland, I relish that tangle of ironies all the more now. Though it doesn't contain two of my favorite Grainger pieces, "Country Gardens" and "Bridal Lullaby," this perfect cello-violin-piano-trio record is my favorite overall collection of his work, boiling Grainger's dances and hymns down to exquisitely noodling chamber folk that would sound as at home at a barn dance as in a bustling cafe. And if there is a more perfect gem of a toe-tapper than the leapfrogging gambol that is "Mock Morris," I haven't heard it.

*This is among the quirky, ostentatiously Anglicized musical notations in the piano score of "Mock Morris".

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