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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Songs
CD 1
Songs of a Wayfarer; When Lights go rolling round the sky; Hope the Hornblower; Sea Fever; Marigold; Five Poems by Thomas Hardy; Three Songs; We’ll to the Woods no more
CD 2
Two Songs; Songs Sacred & Profane; Five XVIth Century Songs; 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; Vagabond; When I am dead my dearest; Santa Chiara; Great Things; If we must part; Tutto e sciolto
CD 3
Songs for Tenor
: The Heart’s desire; The sacred flame; Remember; Hawthorne Time; The East Riding; Love is a sickness full of woes; The Land of Lost Content; Two Songs
Songs for Contralto: The Three Ravens; Bed in Summer; Mother & Child; Earth’s Call; Three Arthur Symons Songs; What art thou thinking of?; Three Thomas Hardy Songs
Benjamin Luxon (baritone) (CD1; CD2); John Mitchinson (tenor) (CD3); Alfreda Hodgson (contralto) (CD3); Alan Rowlands (piano)
rec. St John’s Smith Square, London August 1972, July 1973, November 1973 (CD1; CD2); August 1978 (CD3). ADD
Full song texts in English only
LYRITA SRCD.2261 [3 CDs: 61:26 + 58:08 + 64:10]

There are three things that need to be said about this Lyrita recording of the ‘Songs of John Ireland.’ Firstly this is a CD that most enthusiasts of the composer’s music have been waiting for since the invention of the compact disc. My three old vinyl discs are care-worn after nearly a third of a century’s playing. I suppose that until the huge programme of releases from Lyrita began a year or so ago I hoped that those LP records would last the rest of my natural! This brings me to the second point. There is a second survey of the songs available on Hyperion (CDA67261/2 [76:30 + 77:04]). Naturally the day that this hit the streets, I bought it and have enjoyed it ever since. Yet the point remains - apart from a few isolated songs here and there, it was the Lyrita edition that introduced me to what is probably one of the most important corpuses of English Song in the repertoire. No other version is ever going to mean quite as much to me as this present set of three CDs. It is not my intention to compare the Lyrita and Hyperion editions save to insist that both are impressive productions and both are required additions to the libraries of all enthusiasts of John Ireland’s music.

The third point is how to approach these songs. I imagine that the obvious answer is to work through the songs in order as presented in these three CDs – one after the other. Or maybe a more constructive approach would be to take them absolutely chronologically. I certainly knew someone who insisted on listening to these songs by poet. And that may well be a good approach. I remember delivering a lecture on John Ireland and A.E. Housman: he did not set many poems from ‘The Shropshire Lad’ yet exploring this facet of the composer’s output was extremely informative. A brief look at the list of poets reveals at least two other well represented names: Christina Rossetti and Thomas Hardy.

Interestingly there are eighty tracks on these three CDs. This compares to some 69 on the Hyperion release. Of course the latter squeeze more songs onto each CD – however I understand that the Lyrita collection is based on the premise – "three for the price of two." So from a money’s-worth point of view there is not a lot of difference between the two sets – apart from 11 songs! Yet the layout of the Lyrita CDs is loosely chronological by disc, whereas there seems to be little rhyme or reason with the Hyperion set. Furthermore the present collection gives all the main song-cycles whereas the ‘opposition’ does not. In two instances on the Hyperion release – including the important ‘The Land of Lost Content’ - songs are excerpted from their cycle which I think is bad. I believe that if a composer conceived the work as a group then we should at least do him the courtesy of listening to it as such.

I am not going to explore each song or song cycle in detail. Rob Barnett has given an excellent analysis of most songs in his review. However I want to point out four highlights – in fact I would suggest listening to these as an introduction to John Ireland’s songs. Of course any critic would probably write their own list – but here is mine.

1. Sea Fever

2. If There were Dreams to Sell

3. We’ll to the Woods No More

4. Three Thomas Hardy Songs

Sea Fever is probably the most famous English art-song in the repertoire – it is also Ireland’s best known work. In fact many people will know the song and will not be aware of (or care?) who wrote it. It was a pot-boiler. Yet in spite of its massive popularity it is a truly great piece. The steady rhythm for the piano accompaniment brings to mind the swell of the sea: the voice part begins tentatively but gains in confidence as the ocean’s call imposes itself on the singer. Of course there is a touch of melancholy here too. Anyone ‘going down to the sea’ is inevitably leaving family and friends and his native land. Interestingly John Masefield, the poet, did not appreciate Ireland’s setting of this verse – in spite of the massive royalties he received. The song was published just before the Great War and naturally the mood of the times had a huge impact on the sales. The sub-text of the song is certainly a voyage to the ‘beyond’ – a trip many sailors (and others) were to make in the following four years. There has been considerable debate about the speed and the dynamics of this song. Some singers adopt a somewhat broader tempo than the signed ‘Lento.’ However Benjamin Luxon sticks to the composer’s intentions and gives a characteristically beautiful rendition of this fine song.

If there were Dreams to Sell was the first John Ireland song that I consciously heard. One of the ‘A’ level music students had chosen this number for his 20th century set piece and I was seriously impressed. It was one of the works that led me to be an enthusiast of Ireland’s music. This song was composed at the end of the First World War and reflects some of the hopes and fears of the day. The text was written by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, and was originally called ‘Dream Pedlary’. It suggests that the poet’s ills (and he had many) would be stilled by ‘a cottage lone and still’. It was no doubt a dream that many men returning from the trenches would have identified with.

‘We’ll to the Woods no More’ is a classic fusion of words and music by A.E. Housman and John Ireland. It is unusual in consisting of two songs and a piano solo. The mood of this cycle is typically a deep sense of the fragility of life, love and friendship that so influenced both men. The words come from the poet’s ‘Last Poems’ rather than the more famous ‘Shropshire Lad.’

The eponymous poem is quite an unusual setting. It has been described as a piano solo with vocal commentary. This may be a slight exaggeration but I can see the point. The music is dark and well reflects the words:-

We'll to the Woods no more
The laurels all are cut,
The bowers are bare of bay
That once the Muses wore.
The year draws in the day
And soon will evening shut …

In Boyhood deals with a similar mood – that of lasting (or not as the case may be) friendships. These words would have resounded with the many men and women who had fought in the Great War. Perhaps this is not a sentiment that people would encourage today – but for my money it is a fine and moving poem that is skilfully set to music. I quote the entire poem here as I believe that these words are an important key to understanding Ireland’s music.

When I would muse in boyhood
The wild green woods among,
And nurse resolves and fancies
Because the world was young,
It was not foes to conquer,
Nor sweethearts to be kind,
But it was friends to die for
That I would seek and find.

I sought them far and found them,
The sure, the straight, the brave,
The hearts I lost my own to,
The souls I could not save.
They braced their belts about them,
They crossed in ships the sea,
They sought and found
Six feet of ground,
And there they died for me.

The piano postlude, ‘Spring will not Wait’ is one of Ireland’s smaller masterpieces. Every note is well placed: the bitter sweet nature harmonies virtually define the composer’s style. If I could have only one of the composer’s piano works it would be this.

This is not a song-cycle to listen to if you want cheering up, but quite definitely one that is designed to make you dwell on the deeper realities of life and death. This is no bad thing in these days of ‘GameBoys’ and so-called ‘Reality TV’.

Thomas Hardy’s Summer Schemes is perhaps better known in Gerald Finzi’s excellent song-cycle Earth and Air and Rain. However Ireland also set these words as a part of his Three Songs to Poems by Thomas Hardy.

Andrew Green writes that Hardy’s poetry and Ireland's music were made for each other – "most essentially in terms of the introspection and fatalism common to both."

Even the almost optimistic Summer Schemes "carries the very hallmark of fatalism, personal insecurity, fear of commitment to the future." Perhaps this is exemplified by the lines:-

We shall, [do all these enjoyable things]
I say; but who may sing
Of what another moon will bring!

This refrain comes after an almost idyllic exposition of a typical summer’s days adventures.

Her Song tells how a favourite lyric supported the singer’s moods good and bad, lonely and with her lover. It is a lovely song.

Weathers was a popular text for setting - with versions by Gerald Finzi, Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry and Michael Head. For once this is totally optimistic music that quite simply rejoices in being alive. Full of clichés, it is nevertheless redolent of a lost English countryside that we feel still existed just a few months before we were born.

This is the weather the cuckoo likes,
And so do I;
When showers betumble the chestnut spikes,
And nestlings fly;
And the little brown nightingale bills his best,
And they sit outside at "The Traveller's Rest",
And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest,
And citizens dream of the south and west,
And so do I.

After listening to these four works it is time to explore in more depth. I would suggest looking at the rest of the Housman poems. ‘The Land of Lost Content’ is particularly good. But do not expect to find a setting of the title words! This comes from the poet’s most famous work and my personal favourite –

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

The listener will have to turn to the songs of Arthur Somervell, C.W Orr and Ivor Gurney for fine settings of these words. Yet as a ‘signature’ it largely sums up Ireland’s music. It is then up to the listener constructively to explore the settings of poems by Rossetti, Dowson, Masefield and many others.

One of the problems with both sets of CDs is the omissions. There are over ninety songs in the Ireland catalogue – and that means that ten plus have been omitted from this collection. I have checked the catalogue and am reasonably convinced that nothing absolutely vital to understanding Ireland’s songs is missing. However, I am surprised that his setting of Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ has not been recorded, and perhaps E.T. Cooper’s Songs of a Great Cause. I accept that these are not perhaps essential, yet for the completist it is useful to have ‘everything’. I appreciate that the present recording is a re-release of the vinyl – complete with the time limits imposed by this medium.

Yet, notwithstanding this minor moan, this is a superb CD release. John Ireland is one of the great song-writers of the Twentieth Century – along with Gerald Finzi, Peter Warlock and Benjamin Britten and others! As such, it is surely essential that a recording of this important music is always available. At least we now have two competing versions to choose from. Yet there is no real competition. Anyone who cares a whit for John Ireland’s music will demand both. If, however, songs are not the listener’s forte and they choose to buy just one set then it has to be the present Lyrita offering.

There are three reasons for this: Firstly the programme – includes all (bar one) of the song-cycles. Secondly the performance from Alfreda Hodgson, John Mitchinson (one or two reservations here – I agree with Rob Barnett about the ‘Neddy Seagoon’ effect), Benjamin Luxon and Alan Rowlands is near perfect. And lastly it is well produced, packaged and engineered.

A fine addition to the collections of all enthusiasts of John Ireland’s music in particular and British Music in general.

John France


see also review by Rob Barnett

Reviews of other Lyrita releases of John Ireland
SRCD.240 Ireland Tritons/The Forgotten Rite
SRCD.241 Ireland Legend/Overture Satyricon
SRCD.242 Boult conducts Bridge and Ireland
SRCD.2261 Ireland Songs
SRCD.2271 Ireland Chamber music
Ireland Trust website


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