Percy Grainger, the Australian composer of Country Gardens, was a highly original musician, but is often overlooked. This year, however, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death, Northern Sinfonia have put on several performances of his work, first at the Proms, and now a weekend of concerts at the Sage. Tonight’s concert of folk song arrangements by Grainger and his friends, performed by members of the Northern Sinfonia Chorus, gave a fascinating insight into the composer’s life and work.

Conductor Alan Fearon gave us expert guidance through his programme, highlighting as he did Grainger’s musical daring and inventiveness and his personal eccentricities – his amusingly long-winded set of instructions for all the possible performance variations of The Lost Lady Found was apparently typical. The programme also emphasised the close connections between Grainger and other folk-song enthusiasts of the early 20th century, notably Delius and Grieg. Grieg’s How Fair is thy Face was, in fact, translated by Grainger, who had learnt Norwegian, and it was hard to believe that this slightly spooky piece, full of folk idioms, was actually a psalm setting. Northern Sinfonia sang it with great power, and it gathered an exciting sense of momentum as it rolled onwards.

The music of Lincolnshire played a big part in Grainger’s life and all the connections in the programme came together in Brigg Fair, a work made famous by Delius. Grainger’s arrangement takes a simple tenor solo, sung with beautiful expression by Peter Vasey, and adds a tricky hummed accompaniment. The choir balanced perfectly with the soloist, so we were able to appreciate Grainger’s quirky harmonies without losing the song itself.
On the whole, the choir performed better in the faster, more detailed songs; the slower pieces such as Near Woodstock Town seemed less secure. The Lancashire ditty There was a Pig went out to dig, for female voices, was outstanding; building up from the simple melody, Grainger adds layer on layer of complexity, until the piece becomes a whirlwind, and the women of Northern Sinfonia handled it with a delightful grace and lightness. Apparently Grainger wrote on the score that it should be “jimp” – a Scottish word meaning trim, or neat, and that was exactly how it was sung. The narrative songs The Gypsy’s Wedding Day and The Lost Lady Found also came across particularly well, with very clear words and a strong sense of the stories that were being told.

Later composers also found their way into the programme. Alan Fearon admitted himself that Grainger’s connection with Holst, by way of Balfour-Gardiner, was rather tenuous but Holst’s There was a Tree was a delightful inclusion, enjoyable for itself, and sung with great spirit. There was a more obvious link to Benjamin Britten, for he did much to champion Grainger’s music when it had fallen into neglect, and he acknowledged Grainger’s influence on his own folk arrangements. Northern Sinfonia clearly enjoyed Salley Gardens, and sang it with warmth and enthusiasm.

Until this evening, I had always been rather sceptical about choral folk-song arrangements, but what the Northern Sinfonia Chorus demonstrated was that when they are placed in the hands of a truly imaginative arranger, and sung flawlessly, these pieces really do work. The closing piece, The Lost Lady Found summed up the whole concert; a creative arrangement of a lovely, haunting English melody, performed impeccably, but without losing the spirit of the original folk song behind it all.