This is the release
that all John Ireland fans have been
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
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
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