Marking 40 years since her London debut, which coincides with the Australian Music Centre’s own 40th anniversary, English/Australian pianist and composer Penelope Thwaites AM talks to AMC CEO, John Davis.
In the following extract, reproduced by kind permission of the AMC, Penelope relates something of her experience with Grainger’s music and talks about the forthcoming Grainger project in May, as part of the Australian Voices series with the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM).
It’s probably safe to say that your close affinity to Percy Grainger’s music has shaped your artistic career in a major way, with numerous recordings. Can you recall when it was that you first got to know his music?
We sang a rather charming song at school to the tune Country Gardens but I had no idea of the Grainger connection and certainly no idea of how far that setting, along with the later In an English Country Garden, was from Grainger’s vivid and intense approach to folk-song. His rumbustious piano treatment of Country Gardens emerged when he was in the American army during the First World War. He was later to remark: “most country gardens have a vegetable patch, so you can think of turnips when I play!” I can picture him playing it to his fellow recruits – probably on a not very refined piano.
I really became aware of Grainger’s music when I was in London – some time after completing my Melbourne music degree. An English musician friend, William L Reed, remarked to me “You’re an Australian – why don’t you play some Percy Grainger?”. I looked at the piano score of Shepherd’s Hey, decided it was rather tricky (which it is) and laid it aside. My interest lay with Bartok and Beethoven at the time. But in 1972 a friend lent me Benjamin Britten’s orchestral and vocal recording Salute to Percy Grainger. I found a world of magic. Yet still my playing was elsewhere (my 1974 Wigmore Hall debut program was Bach, Beethoven Brahms and Mussorgsky).
What got me playing Grainger was reading two biographies of him and realising that this would make a fascinating lecture-recital. I learned 15 of his pieces, which traced some of the themes of his story, and that program had quite a long life, both in the UK and internationally. One thing then led to another – recording the fabulous two-piano music with John Lavender on Pearl (soon to be re-issued), then a solo disc for Unicorn Kanchana, along with continuing performances of his music. I must stress that Grainger was one compelling thread in my career, but the wider piano repertoire in all its glory and variety has been just as important to me. Inevitably, though, in a crowded profession, anything distinctive in one’s work will tend to be thought of first. My wonderful piano teacher, Albert Ferber, who had studied with Gieseking, and Marguerite Long and played to Rachmaninov, was hugely encouraging to me in making a broad-based career. He may not even have realised that Grainger himself was a virtuoso pianist of world reknown.
To return to my own story: in due course, with many concerts, broadcasts and recordings behind me, and with the expert knowledge of Barry Peter Ould – music publisher – we were able in 1995 to propose a complete Grainger Edition to the Chandos record company. Although they did not manage to complete the 25 CDs originally mooted, their 20 recordings (19 in a box set) have almost certainly been the single most effective dissemination of this extraordinarily varied repertoire – choral, orchestral, song, chamber, piano, wind-band and more. To record much of the solo music (discovering and editing unknown works along the way), and to work with three outstanding singers on the solo songs in that series – these were unforgettable experiences. It was serendipitous that all this was going on as the internet grew and tracks could easily be downloaded and heard. Live Grainger performances require great dedication, as they are both unusual and difficult (and sometimes costly) – though ultimately hugely enjoyable.
You are a recognised Grainger scholar as well as an interpreter of his music, and have only recently given a Grainger world premiere. Can you tell us about this? Is there still more to discover, or do you know your Grainger inside out by now?
The most recent premiere (see the next question) is one of many over the years! A past Curator of the Grainger Museum in Melbourne warned me that once you got involved with Grainger, you would be drawn on and on. She was right. I owe much to the knowledge and experience of performer and academic colleagues, and this came to fruition when I put to the publishers Boydell & Brewer the idea of a new Percy Grainger Companion. Since Lewis Foreman’s 1981 Companion, a significant body of Grainger discoveries, recording, editing and research had built up.
My task as editor of this completely new volume was to try to provide a balanced selection of chapters by performers and also researchers, to reflect this 30 year advance. Barry Ould laboured over the most detailed and up-to-date catalogue thus far. In 2011, at a festival in London marking 50 years since Grainger’s death, The New Percy Grainger Companion was launched. It exists to aid and abet many more performances of his endlessly interesting music. I am always upset if some music college has not managed to acquire it – because it is the only up-to-date guide, providing the keys to Grainger performance. I am personally very grateful that Peter Sculthorpe was still around to write the Foreword, and to provide a delightful vignette of his childhood meeting with Grainger.
You’re spending time in Melbourne in the near future, in order to work with ANAM’s talented young musicians. What is it exactly that you will be doing with them?
I am really delighted to be undertaking this project with young and gifted Australian musicians, studying in the city of Grainger’s birth. I am sure that some of them will go on to discover much more about his musical works and about his stimulating ideas on the part music can play in life and society at large. On Thursday 21 May at the Melbourne Recital Centre we’ll be presenting together an action-packed hour-long concert Australian Voices: Percy Grainger – The Grainger You’ve Never Heard. The concert will include works for brass ensemble, for strings and woodwind, for percussion and for multi-pianos. It will be a wonderful shop window both for Grainger and for the talents of these exceptional young musicians. And I am glad to say that we shall end with a newly-orchestrated Piano Concerto movement, written by Percy Grainger at the age of 13, when he was studying in Frankfurt. He went on to develop an extremely individual style, but here we can admire a prodigy who has learned his Mozart/Beethoven/Mendelssohn/Schumann, and produced a great piece – full of joie de vivre. This will be its Australian premiere.
As well as a very full rehearsal schedule that week, on the preceding Monday 18 May,
I’ll be giving a talk Discovering Percy Grainger also at the Melbourne Recital Centre Salon in which I’ll play recorded extracts of a rather unexpected selection of Grainger works – all of which will add context to the concert on the following Thursday. Finally, I understand that ANAM’s Artistic Director, Paul Dean and I will be holding a public conversation at ANAM on Friday 22 May at 11am – which I am told can range as widely as we like!
This is an excerpt from April edition of the Australian Music Centre’s RESONATE magazine.
Australian Voices: Percy Grainger
21 May, The Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre
GRAINGER The Duke of Marlborough Fanfare
GRAINGER Green Bushes
GRAINGER My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone
GRAINGER The Widow’s Party March
GRAINGER Baharilyale V. Palaniyandi
GRAINGER Random Round
GRAINGER Free Music
GRAINGER Molly on the Shore
GRAINGER Youthful Piano Concerto Movement (1896) (Australian Premiere)
Penelope Thwaites curator/piano
Tickets available from anam.com.au
In Conversation With… Penelope Thwaites
ANAM on Friday 22 May at 3pm.