BBC Proms reviews

Prom 25: Northern Sinfonia/Harle @ Royal Albert Hall, London

2 August 2011

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Percy Grainger died 50 years ago, and even today he is one of those composers whom everyone knows (most probably for his arrangements of Brigg Fair and English Country Garden) but whom very few actually understand. A gifted pianist from a very young age, and perhaps most famous during his life as a performer (he performed Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto and Grieg’s Concerto at the Proms in the first decade of the 20th century), his compositions are only now beginning to be widely appreciated for their originality and complexity, as much as for their melodiousness and tongue-firmly-in-cheek humour.

The evenings main Prom had featured Grainger as both composer and arranger, but this late-night folk affair was entirely devoted to his arrangements of folk-songs, in which field his efforts as a collector and cataloguer in the field deserve to be as well-known as those of Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams: Grainger’s four years spent in eight different counties yielded a bountiful harvest of over 400 songs in manuscript and over 200 recorded wax phonograph cylinders of singers.

What sets Grainger’s treatment of this infinitely rich raw material apart from his fellow composers and arrangers is the balance he found between respect for the original and full-blown development and variation. While Vaughan Williams took songs such as The Turtle Dove and The Trees So High and treated them with the same nobility and reverence as he did the famous Tallis theme, Grainger at all times recognised that the folk songs he heard were very much part of a living, vibrant tradition, the products of the passions and emotions of real people, and as such infused them with his own inimitable joie de vivre.

Thus, on stage at the Royal Albert Hall representatives of all these facets of Grainger the serious, the avant-garde, the respectful, the irreverent came together to create perhaps the closest well ever come to the composers stated fantasy of combining musicians from Celtic, English, Caribbean and Polynesian traditions in one almighty jam session. Striding onto the darkened stage under a spotlight, June Tabor conjured up the most spell-binding, rapt attention with her solo rendition of Green Bushes, which segued into the Northern Sinfonia’s performance of Grainger’s setting.

The renowned Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell had planned the evening to show that the relationship between folk music and Grainger wasnt just one way: thus, her own band mixed traditional airs with tunes that the composer had collected, while the men of the BBC Singers and the a cappella group The Wilson Family showed that Grainger’s music responds just as well to the former groups rounded, dulcet tones as to the latters full-throated, rollicking delivery.

The final hurrah was an en masse performance of Grainger’s Scotch Strathspey and Reel, in which tunes and fragments of tunes are thrown back and forth and up in the air, with Grainger adding in saucy counter-melodies with, surely, a glint in his eye. This was undoubtedly the best Prom Ive attended in years, and a very fitting tribute to a musical maverick whose genius is surely now beyond doubt.

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Prom 25: Northern Sinfonia/Harle @ Royal Albert Hall, London