Made for two

Pianist Penelope Thwaites sings the praises of Percy Grainger's piano duos

Made for two
Thwaites and Young recording Grainger Vol 4, February 2016 (photo Tim Henshall)

There’s no doubt that the sound of a piano duo can be extraordinarily exciting and rich. 

The composer and piano virtuoso Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was a master in writing for the genre.

I was lucky enough to be asked to record this kaleidoscopic repertoire with fellow Anglo-Australian pianist John Lavender some thirty years ago. It was a 3-CD adventure as we worked on unravelling not just the well-known favourites – which are deliciously arranged for two pianos (Handel in the Strand, Shepherds Hey, Country Gardens) – but discovered many Grainger works previously unrecorded, or unrecorded on CD.  Experimental pieces included  his two Hill Songs, originally written for an ensemble including 21 double reed wind instruments  (think mega bagpipe sound). Also, his fascinating, disturbing Pastoral which develops as a kind of hallucinatory dream with the pianos ultimately at loggerheads before the whole thing dissolves.

Warriors 2 was a brand new piece put together from Grainger’s sketches and showing him in out-and-romantic mode – beautiful tunes strung together with his Bridal Lullaby placed at the heart of it.  

The range of pianistic sounds is remarkable in all these works, using the extremities of both keyboards The ear is intrigued and seduced rather than attacked, as can be all too often the case in two-piano performances.  To attain the variety of sounds demanded by Grainger takes intensive preparation and experimentation by the performers as the spotlight falls first on one and then on the other.

'In the art of setting folk-song, Grainger is my master' declared Benjamin Britten. In the suite Lincolnshire Posy  for example, Grainger produces a startlingly original series of six folk settings which illustrate the words and (as he said) the personality of each folk singer who had given him the tune. The suite was originally for wind-band and that version has become a classic in wind-band repertoire.  Try for example Rufford Park Poachers – portraying not a jolly outing for miscreants but a powerful, at times polytonal, story of nocturnal mystery. 

Grainger also had a gift for arranging music of composers he admired – often bringing these works forward to a wider audience. Porgy and Bess, for example, has its unique place in the operatic repertoire, but Grainger’s two piano Fantasy on Themes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess wonderfully projects one unforgettable tune after the other.

Vol 4 of the set was recorded just last year with Melbourne pianist Timothy Young on the fine Melbourne Recital Centre Steinways. The repertoire - principally arrangements – travels from Palestrina and William Lawes, via Balfour Gardiner, Bach and Delius to Richard Addinsell and his swashbuckling Warsaw Concerto. The CD also includes a 13-year-old Grainger’s Konzertstück 1896 (concerto movement) a work of considerable accomplishment and charm.

The Box Set of 60 tracks covers for the first time this kaleidoscopic and endlessly fascinating body of work in its entirety, shedding much light on a still under-rated composer. 

Penelope Thwaites has recorded over 260 tracks of Grainger’s music – solo, duo and multi-hand piano. She is the editor of The New Percy Grainger Companion just out in paperback.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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