Proms 2011 – Late-night Percy Grainger

Green Bushes
Molly on the Shore
Shepherd’s Hey
Early One Morning
Shallow Brown
Scotch Strathspey & Reel

“Interspersed with traditional and contemporary folk music, including material which formed the basis for Grainger’s arrangements”

June Tabor (folk singer), Wilson Family (shanty singers), Kathryn Tickell Band & BBC Singers (men’s voices)
Northern Sinfonia
John Harle

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 2 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Percy Grainger (1882-1961) in 1922It is fifty years since Percy Grainger died, and following Sir Andrew Davis’s ebullient contribution to the commemorations, this gem of a late-night Prom opened with the striking quality of June Tabor’s pure-toned solo, deep and resonant as if sounding through the ages. Green Bushes is one of the folksongs collected by Grainger on his occasional trips with phonograph cylinders between 1905 and 1909. He collected Green Bushes five times, and Tabor’s distinctive timbre related the lovelorn story with a quiet authority. Tabor only returned late on to equally extraordinary effect in the West Indian slave-inspired Shallow Brown. On both occasions we also heard, courtesy of the Northern Sinfonia and John Harle, what Percy Grainger did with these very tunes. Kathryn Tickell – becoming a veteran at the Proms – similarly entranced with another five traditional tunes, as arranged for her band (including her brother Peter on fiddle, Joss Clapp on guitar and Amy Thatcher on accordion) that were also heard in Grainger’s adaptations. Thus Early Air foreshadowed Grainger’s Early One Morning; Tullochgorum returned in Grainger’s Scotch Strathspey and Reel (as well as much else); the string-quartet version, with NS principals led by Bradley Creswick, of Molly on the Shore was later reprised with authentic swing by the KT Band; and the strings of the Sinfonia got two bites at Shepherd’s Hey, in Grainger’s version and then subtly accompanying Tickell’s traditional take.

The men of the BBC Singers contributed to a brace of numbers (bass Michael Bundy as soloist in Shallow Brown), and having already introduced a shanty (Round the Bay of Mexico) in fabulous close-harmony, the lusty quintet of the Wilson Family joined in the Scotch Strathspey raising the roof with ‘What shall we do with the Drunken Sailor?’. Beautifully crafted and presented, the only problem about this Prom was that it was too short. Even with the encore, Shepherd’s Hey again, it came down on time at 11.30. Really we needed double helpings of June Tabor and the Wilson Family. Grainger’s wish for a true amalgam of traditional and orchestral music was achieved, seemingly effortlessly, on this night (and due on BBC Four on 14 August). I hope we don’t need the excuse of another Grainger anniversary for a Prom devoted to him – and, next time, please make it ‘main’ and longer!

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