In my review of Ivor Gurney's Carol of the Skiddaw Yowes I mentioned that British Pastoralist composers were well-suited to reviving old Christmas carols and recomposing them with craft and gusto. While the Gurney was hecks good and the Bax that I couldn't find a recording for is really hecks good, today we're looking at probably my favorite Christmas-themed piano piece, Percy Grainger's Sussex Mummers' Christmas Carol.
For those who didn't spend most of their Christmases in rural England, Mummers plays are folk plays put on by troupes of amateur actors in small towns. The tradition goes back centuries and is still kept alive by awesome people but after the first World War the troupes largely died out. It might have been a consideration of preserving this dying tradition that inspired Grainger to set this carol (not to be confused with the "Sussex Carol"), transcribed by the seminal folk song collector Lucy Broadwood, as part of his British Folk-Music Settings series, though I'd think that above all Grainger saw its inherent tunefulness and potential for rich harmonies. Grainger's extended tonality and part-writing here is unbelievably sumptuous and yearning, able to draw a full orchestra from the piano and requiring enormous sensitivity from the performer. The close proximity of the tune to Grainger's clustered chord voicings adds another difficulty to the performance, especially when it buries itself in the middle of the tenor range in the second verse. Every Graingerian trick is in play, from hyper-specific tempo shifts to imitate human singing inconsistencies to passionate added grace notes and a generous helping of fermati. While it's one of the most solemn Christmas pieces around it also instills great peace in the listener, and Penelope Thwaites knows how to instill peace like nobody's business.