August 3, 2011 5:43 pm

Grainger/folk songs, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London

“He pinched folk-songs for his music, now we’re pinching them back,” quipped the Northumbrian smallpiper Kathryn Tickell, explaining the dynamics of this late-night Prom, which interspersed folk tunes old and new with compositions by Percy Grainger to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. The eccentric Grainger did not so much set folk material as use it to jump off into new arrangements – “evocative, poetic and surprising,” as Tickell described them.

The Northern Sinfonia under John Harle was bright and brisk. It bubbled with almost supernatural mischief in Grainger’s “elastic” (his word) orchestration of “Green Bushes” – a passacaglia, as the programme told me – and had a perky decorum in his “Shepherd’s Hey”, which might have tempted Jane Austen to shake a leg. A quartet of Sinfonia strings attacked the eddying rhythms of “Molly on the Shore” with refined gusto – spurred on by the vibrant fiddling of Peter Tickell, Kathryn’s younger brother, that preceded it.

Tickell held her smallpipe in the crook of her arm and it made an underlying, bagpipey drone, but its top notes were sprightlier than its Scots equivalent. It might have been a trick of the amplification or the acoustics, but I heard a nearly electric peal, a techno bleepiness, in its trilling. On the faster jigs, it seemed obvious that these were early rave anthems.

“Scotch Strathspey and Reel” – aka “What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor” – was a rousing finale. The Wilson Family sang a hearty lead as the BBC Singers emulated a marine swell. Grainger’s writing flowed several themes together, yet it’s no slight on the players to say it would have sounded better – looser and truer – down the pub.

The unflinching and resonant voice of June Tabor, singing unaccompanied, all but bookended the show with her “Green Bushes” and “Shallow Brown”, chillingly conveying the latter’s desolating distance. Grainger’s version of the same song, performed by the BBC Singers, was a soul-jangling spiritual – odd that someone known for what Gramophone politely calls “his blue-eyed, Nordic views”, could render so feelingly something that probably originated on the plantations.

For the encore, accordionist Amy Thatcher did an impromptu clog dance – proof that Celts and gypsies don’t have all the best moves. Traditional music knows no borders.

4 stars

Royal Albert Hall

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