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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Songs
see end of review for details
Benjamin Luxon (baritone), John Mitchinson (tenor), Alfreda Hodgson (contralto)
Alan Rowlands (piano)
rec. August 1972, July 1973, November 1973 (CD1-2); August 1978 (CD3), St John’s, Smith Square, London. ADD
LYRITA SRCD.2261 [3 CDs: 61:26 + 58:08 + 64:10]

Over the years Lyrita has proved a leading player on the British music scene, not least for keeping alive the flames of composers who might otherwise be neglected. Having recently issued a collection of the chamber music, this 3 CD set of the songs has arrived, and Eric Parkin’s first recordings of the piano music have also just been released.
The plastic case containing the discs is substantial rather than slim-line, but with good reason, since there are two booklets, one with splendid notes by two authoritative writers, Geoffrey Bush and William Mann, the other with the complete texts, clearly printed though in understandable tiny print. The organisation of this material could not be more clear, which is an important consideration in a collection such as this.
The recordings are some thirty years old now but they reflect the high technical standards Lyrita became renowned for in the LP era, standards which are strongly reflected in this new CD issue. The artists too are of the highest calibre and are noted exponents in this field. For example, the pianist Alan Rowlands may not be a household name nowadays, but he also recorded Ireland’s complete piano music for Lyrita, and these performances await issue next year. At any rate he proves an idiomatic and sensitive accompanist to his singers, always capturing the nature of the song and allowing the phrasing to articulate the style and meaning.
Discs one and two feature that fine singer Benjamin Luxon, recorded at the height of his considerable powers. Disc three combines the tenor and contralto songs, with John Mitchinson and Alfreda Hodgson. A lost opportunity in this otherwise comprehensive set concerns Ireland’s most famous song, Sea Fever. This was originally written for a tenor but subsequently became associated with the baritone voice, as featured here. In a collection so complete it would have been interesting to hear the tenor version also. Luxon responds sensitively to the song, but the personality of his performance does not erase thoughts of the marvellous recording by Bryn Terfel with Malcolm Martineau (DG 445 946 2).
With so many songs composed over a period of some thirty years, it is not surprising that they range widely in approach and even in style. Some are in a direct ballad style, such as Sea Fever and When Lights Go Rolling Round the Sky. And anyone who has heard Stanford’s marvellous Songs of the Sea will respond in enthusiastic vein to Ireland’s Hope the Hornblower, also using words by Henry Newbolt.
In common with so many of his contemporaries, Ireland reacted creatively to the poetry of A.E. Housman. An unusual feature of the sensitively drawn cycle We'll to the Woods No More is that it closes with an impressive piano solo, a purely instrumental postlude summing up its nature. However, the booklet of words (see p.6) does not make this entirely clear. Alan Rowlands captures the mood to perfection, though the recorded sound is accurate rather than atmospheric.
The various song-cycles are always worth hearing as Ireland intended them, even if some of the songs have achieved a separate and independent life. Songs Sacred and Profane is a case in point, since of its content the ever-popular The Salley Gardens (W.B. Yeats) has become independently known, whereas the effect made is all the greater when the song is heard in its appropriate context. It is a strength of these Luxon and Rowlands performances that they always convey this sense of unity when approaching collections of songs intended to be cycles. And for all his reputation as a ballad singer, Luxon brings much sensitivity to his control of dynamics. A fine example of this is the Rossetti setting, During Music, when the vocal tone seems absolutely perfect: sensitive at the one extreme, commanding at the other.
Ireland's poetic nature inclines him towards the refined role of miniaturist, even if he did respond brilliantly to the challenge of larger forms. A glimpse of the latter can be seen in the outgoing nature of the recruiting song The Soldier’s Return, which recalls the manner of Arthur Somervell’s Shropshire Lad song, The Street Sounds to the Soldiers’ Tread. And of course this style suits Luxon admirably.
Further evidence of the composer’s artistic range comes in the choice of verses from the Elizabethan era, territory we might more readily associate with Ivor Gurney or Peter Warlock. Another of the famous songs is, like Sea Fever, a Masefield setting. The Bells of San Marie is done in the manner of a ballad, with the style reinforced by the performance – and why not? At the other extreme comes Christina Rossetti's When I am Dead My Dearest, a song whose inwardness and submissiveness is palpable, offering a completely different challenge to performers and listeners alike.
The theme of the recent Festival of English Song at Ludlow (June 2007) was the ‘Celtic Twilight’, of which phenomenon there is no better example than The Joyce Book, which gathered songs by various composers collected in a publication made in the 1930s. The other composers included Ernest Moeran and Arnold Bax, as we might expect, but Ireland’s contribution proved to be one of his most successful songs: Tutto e sciolto. Luxon and Rowlands prove strong advocates.
In the songs for tenor John Mitchinson has a mixed success. Not always associated with lieder and song rather than the larger forms, his voice is generally appealing but sometimes without the sensitivity of tone that the style ideally demands. That said, the Housman songs collected under the title The Land of Lost Content are among the best Ireland ever wrote, and Mitchinson is excellent in the faster numbers such as Goal and Wicket and The encounter, while always sensitive to meaning elsewhere.
Alfreda Hodgson was a leading artist and proves herself well suited to this repertoire. There is more Rossetti with the cycle Mother and Child, which in this performance proves a highlight among highlights, featuring the most sensitive attention to word painting and phrasing. Like Benjamin Britten and Gerald Finzi, Ireland responded creatively to the poetry of Thomas Hardy. When listening to Ireland’s Three Poems, the memory of Finzi is not effaced (how could it be?), but even in settings as strongly characterised as these alternative responses to Summer Schemes, Hodgson’s performance brings out Ireland’s musical personality most distinctively.
The repertory of English song is one of the richest aspects of our musical life, and one of the most neglected. It is a kind of music in which the artistry of the performers makes an enormous difference, and in which the art of communication can be at its most direct and powerful. While there are other recorded performances (those on Hyperion) which are of the highest quality, those collected here by Lyrita make a significant contribution to the catalogue of English music.
Terry Barfoot

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and John France

Full Lyrita catalogue

Track listing
Songs for baritone
Songs of a Wayfarer [12:10] (When Lights go rolling round the sky, Hope the Hornblower,
Sea Fever)
Marigold - Impression for voice and piano [13:05]
Five Poems by Thomas Hardy [11:21] (Love and Friendship, Friendship in Misfortune, The One Hope, We'll to the Woods no more, Spring will not wait)
Songs for baritone
During Music
Songs Sacred and Profane [13:33]
Five XVIth Century Songs [9:59]
Blow out you Bugles
If there were Dreams to sell
I have twelve Oxen
Spring Sorrow
The Bells of San Marie
The Journey
The merry month of May
When I am dead my dearest
Santa Chiara - Palm Sunday
Great Things
If we must part
Tutto e sciolto
Songs for tenor
The Heart's desire
The sacred flame
Hawthorne Time
The East Riding
Love is a sickness full of woes
The Land of Lost Content  [11:11]
The Trellis
My true love hath my Heart
Songs for Contralto
The three Ravens
Bed in Summer
Mother and Child [9:00]
Earth's Call, A Sylvan Rhapsody
Three Arthur Symons Songs [7:06]
What art thou thinking of?
Three Thomas Hardy Songs [6:48]


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