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John Ireland (1879-1962)
CD 1

Phantasie Trio (1906) [13:14]
Trio No.2 (1917) [15:11]
Trio No.3 (1938) [28:35]
Yfrah Neaman (violin); Julian Lloyd Webber (cello); Eric Parkin (piano)
CD 2
Sextet for Clarinet, Horn and String Quartet (1898) [28:11]
Sonata for Cello and Piano (1923) [20:19]
Fantasy Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1943) [14:00]
Melos Ensemble: Emanuel Hurwitz, Ivor MacMahon (violins); Cecil Aronowitz (viola); Terence Weil (cello); André Navarra (cello) (Sonata); Neill Sanders (horn); Gervase de Peyer (clarinet) (Sonata, Sextet)
CD 3

Violin Sonata No. 1 (1908-1909 rev.1917) [30:44]
Violin Sonata No. 2 (1915-1917) [28:54]
Yfrah Neaman (violin); Eric Parkin (piano)
rec. Trios, St John’s Smith Square, London, July 1976; Cello Sonata, Fantasy Sonata, Sextet, May-October 1971; Violin Sonatas, St. John’s Smith Square, London, June 1972
LYRITA SRCD.2271 [3 CDs: 57:23 + 62:34 + 59:41]

This is the release that all John Ireland fans have been waiting for!

I first came across the composer in about 1972. I breezed into the school music department one lunch-break to find my best friend practising one of his A-Level set pieces. It sounded attractive. I asked him what it was. "‘If there were dreams to sell’ by John Ireland," he said. My blank face and innocent "Who?" prompted, "What! You’ve never heard of John Ireland?" I said nothing – I hadn’t.

Exactly two weeks later I was round at another friend’s house. I was nosing at his father’s records. In amongst the James Last and the Joe Loss was an old SAGA LP [520S] with a picture of a windmill on the cover. Recalling the music room incident I asked him if I could borrow it. No problems – he never listened to it. He could not recall where it came from. Back home I listened to it end to end. It was my introduction to the piano and chamber works of a composer who was to become one of my lifetime favourites. I have since checked the Internet and found out that album was called ‘John Ireland – In Memoriam’ and contained performances of the Violin Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, the Fantasy-Sonata, Decorations and The Holy Boy. The performers were Tessa Robbins, violin, Thea King playing clarinet and Alan Rowlands, piano. The album was produced in 1962 to commemorate the death of the composer.

In those early days it would have been the piano pieces that appealed to me most. But a few years later I found the Lyrita Recorded Edition label. I soon managed to locate new or secondhand copies of the three vinyl discs that are represented on this CD collection. I cannot honestly say that I wore the grooves out on these LPs but they were never too far away from my turntable. It was not until the fine Chandos boxed set of Ireland's Chamber Works (CHAN9377/78) was released in the mid-1990s that I really ‘got into’ these tunes. I occasionally ‘spun’ the Lyritas, but since then I suppose that I have usually listened to the Chandos. So it is with huge pleasure that I now have the original Lyrita recordings back in my collection with superb sound and committed playing. My birthday is at the beginning of the year – but when these CDs arrived through the post I thought that it must be winter –and I looked out the window at the heaving sea and torrential rain and realised it was!

These three CDs contain the vast majority of Ireland’s mature chamber pieces: the big exception being the youthful two string quartets. A brief glance at Stewart Craggs’ invaluable catalogue reveals a few odd pieces for violin and piano, a variety of incarnations of the Holy Boy and a late (1952) piece for oboe and piano that are not included. But the fact is that these CDs present all the chamber music of John Ireland that really matters!

The earliest work on this release is the Sextet. This dates from the time when the composer was studying under Charles Villiers Stanford. It was one of a large number of works that he suppressed. It was not until the final years of his life that Ireland was persuaded to concede publication. There is no doubt that Brahms and Dvořák are the models for this work, however, there are a number of moments when the listener feels that the “the door opens onto the English countryside.” It may not be ‘essential’ Ireland, but the repertoire would be the poorer for not having this as a part of his ‘collected’ chamber music.

The Phantasie Trio in A minor and the Sonata No.1 for Violin and Piano were written in the early part of Ireland’s career. At this time he had definitely left the security of the Royal College of Music behind him and his individual voice was becoming apparent. Yet here there was still much that was traditional and in large part classically-romantic in evidence. These early works were entered for the famous Cobbett competitions with the Violin Sonata taking first prize and the Trio coming second. Interestingly the second movement of the Sonata, which is a ‘romance’, makes use of modal scales and harmonies – a definite Ireland fingerprint. At this time Tudor music was being re-discovered, folk song was being explored and a general move from the Germanic influence was being attempted. Ireland was never to succumb to folksong (but see below for an exception) however plainsong was to play an important part in his music. The Violin Sonata is a largely a sad and somewhat reflective piece – yet the much lighter last movement shows a totally different side of the composer’s personality. The Trio which is in a single movement is an attractive piece that certainly deserved its prize.

Like so many other composers at this time, John Ireland felt the tragedy and destruction of the Great War. It has been said that he wanted to cling to the beauty that remained on the earth amidst the carnage and inhumanity of the battle. From these war years come the Second Trio and the Second Violin Sonata. Eric Parkin notes the ‘picturesque’ moods of the Trio. Is there a suggestion of ‘marching feet’ in the allegro giusto? Yet the ‘andante’ has music of ‘haunting beauty’ and the work ends quite optimistically, considering the 1917 date.

The Second Violin Sonata must be one of very few English chamber works to be a ‘hit’ with the general music-loving public. Yet it was this work, which more than any other of Ireland’s seemed to catch the public imagination. His reputation was roundly established after its first performance. Edwin Evans said "for many, John Ireland’s Sonata in A minor was an expression of those (wartime) emotions. It was as if the music had struck some latent sentiment that had been waiting for the sympathetic voice to make it articulate." This is a truly great and memorable work: look out for the fine elegiac slow movement and the contrast between this and the powerful finale.

The Cello Sonata was written in 1923 and was premiered the following year by Beatrice Harrison and Evlyn Howard-Jones. It does not surprise me that Harrison felt that it was a glorious work. In fact she was so impressed with the Sonata that she took it with her to the ISCM Festival in Salzburg. The work itself can be said to balance diversity in unity. This music is personal: Ireland is truly speaking from the heart. Yet it is not sentimental, in fact it has been said that the composer derived inspiration from William Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.’ The programme notes point out that this work is "pervaded with the brooding mystery of the deep past." Rightly or wrongly it is hard to listen to this piece without feeling some strong sense of place – in this case the landscape around Chanctonbury Hill and the West Sussex Downs.

The last of the three Trios was composed in 1938: however the material is believed to have derived from a withdrawn Clarinet Trio. Of course the music has been rewritten and recreated: it is not just an arrangement. This is an extremely beautiful score that seems to be describing a landscape, or more appropriately the composer's response to that landscape. Interestingly this work is dedicated to William Walton yet the stylistic nods all seem to be towards Vaughan Williams. This is my personal favourite of all John Ireland’s chamber music. This work, which is long by the composer’s standards, has managed to achieve a fine balance between the three players: the themes of the entire work feel as if they are interrelated and finally there are even nods to folksong in the ‘scherzo’!

The latest work on this release is the great Fantasy-Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, written in 1943. Ireland had long wanted to write a work for this combination. Importantly this was to be his last significant offering in the chamber music genre. Yet there is nothing ‘end of term’ about the writing: it reveals the composer at his best. The formal structure is theoretically one fourteen minute movement. However it loosely divides into three interrelated but unrepeated sections. Ireland has managed to balance the idea of an ‘imaginative fantasy’ with that of a formal sonata. This is a technically difficult work that apparently raised a number of eyebrows when it was first presented to the performers. However it is a sonata that reveals it beauty through the varied material. It is a deeply thought out work that can be seen as a summing up of much of the composer’s music: the impressionism, the heart-easing ‘tranquillo’, the bitter-sweet piano harmonies and the nods to Brahms. The work was dedicated to Frederick Thurston who gave the premiere.

Most Ireland enthusiasts will be aware of the competition for these recordings. I must confess that I am perhaps a little biased. I will always prefer this present recording to those of ASV or Chandos. The prime reason is that these are the editions that I ‘grew up’ with: this is how I discovered these works. Of course I have the other versions in my collection – and they are essential. However the bottom line is this. I doubt there will be many Ireland-ites who will not rush out and buy these Lyrita CDs to add to their collection of disc and vinyl.

For someone who has just discovered the composer – perhaps by hearing ‘Sea Fever’ or ‘If There Were Dreams to Sell’, I would heartily recommend this boxed set. The playing is fantastic and always committed, Eric Parkin worked with the composer, and the programme notes are excellent. Finally and vitally, the depth and feeling of Ireland’s music is communicated to the listener through every note on these CDs.

John France

John Ireland website



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