John IRELAND (1879-1962)
My Song is Love Unknown - The Church Music
Te Deum in F (1907) [6.45] Benedictus in F (1914)
Communion Service in C (1913) [14.52]
Hymn: My Song is Love unknown (1920) [2.56]
Elegiac Romance (1902) [8.27]
Evening Service in C (1941) [4.40]
Hymn: Christ the Lord is risen today (Sampford) (1940)
Greater Love hath no man (1912) [5.29]
Hymn: I am trusting (Eastergate) [1906) [2.35]
Capriccio for organ (1911) [5.03]
Four unaccompanied Carols (1927/41) [8.27]
Ex ore innocentium (1944) [3.24]
Hymn:Island Praise (1915) [1.53]
Evening Service in F (1915) [5.56]
Lincoln Cathedral Choir/Aric Prentice
Charles Harrison (organ)
rec. Lincoln Cathedral, 6-7, 27-28 Feb 2012. DDD
NAXOS 8.573014 [77.05]
When I was a choirboy both in the High Anglican all-male tradition
of the parish church and later in cathedral worship, the church music of
John Ireland was part of our staple diet. This involved the Te
Deum in F and the Benedictus for Choral Matins
once a month; more often this was linked with the Communion
Service in C and the linked Evening Service. We
became so familiar with this music that we tended to call them
“wash-day services” to be knocked off when we were otherwise
engaged in ‘more significant’ pieces.
The present disc was recorded during the year of the fiftieth
anniversary of the composer’s death. Hearing these works again,
freshly now, after several years of being away from them, I have come to
realise what skill Ireland manifests in these settings. We can relish those
pleasing harmonies, the imaginative word-painting and the memorable melodic
lines. These are to be found throughout the Communion Service
in C alongside a simple and clear structure. The Te
Deum boasts unison passages divided between the voices, an
independent yet supportive organ part and a general sense of Edwardian
solidity. It’s all very much in the tradition of Stanford,
Ireland’s one-time teacher. Ireland worked in solidly middle-class
churches in London - Holy Trinity, Sloane Street and Sydney Street, Chelsea.
The latter was immortalised by Sir John Betjeman and can be seen pictured in
a lovely black and white print from 1909.
All of Ireland’s best known works for the liturgy are here and
to Lincoln Cathedral Choir this music is bread and butter. Occasionally it
sounds like it but the choir is never weary of their work or dreary in
delivery; just sometimes lacking in excitement. Even so this is a good
anthology of standard compositions by a man who made a life-long and
significant contribution to England’s church music heritage.
So what are the highlights?
Ireland, as a young man, was primarily a church organist as well as
a choirmaster. He had studied the organ as his first instrument at the RCM
so it is not surprising to find some organ pieces. However, as with his
church music, he was not prolific. He had a private family income but needed
a little extra cash. As Muriel Searle says in her Ireland biography he
“topped up his allowance” with pieces of this ilk. She goes on
to quote Ireland’s confidante Norah Kirby that “his only thought
was that he would be able to play such a magnificent organ” (Midas
Books, Tunbridge Wells, 1979).
It appears that not all of the organ pieces are now available in
print. Some, in any event, are quite modest. That said, the fine Father
Willis organ is played dexterously by Charles Harrison. He gives us a happy
little Capriccio- something of a display piece
especially when played at this brisk pace. It has almost a sense of the
fairground about it. The Elegiac Romance is moving and
deeply felt. One wonders if Ireland ever planned to orchestrate it.
Listening to this piece and indeed to major orchestral works like
Legend and Mai-Dun one can understand what Adrian Boult might
have meant when describing Ireland as “one of the interesting and
complex characters in British Music” (Preface to Searle’s book).
The organ sounds impressive and tonally flexible in the solos but
becomes a little indistinct when accompanying. This is rather a pity
especially in the next discussed piece. Aric Prentice commands a brilliantly
spirited and dramatic performance of Greater love
hath no man in which the boys especially
sound on top form. This emphasises that this is indeed a worthy work and one
of Ireland’s masterpieces. A shame that the balance with the organ is
just a little problematic.
There are four hymns. My Song is Love Unknown is
the best and most often heard in many churches. Of the others, I
am Trusting is rather solemn. Island Praise is
for men’s voices and is more like a little anthem having been
written during the First World War for those fighting at sea. With Ex
ore innocentium Ireland sets the words
of a hymn by Bishop Walsham How, ‘It is a thing most wonderful’.
He turns them into a through-composed anthem or motet for the bright-toned
boys alone. It is quite song-like in style although a little too sentimental
for my taste.
Most of the Four unaccompanied Carols are
rightly familiar. Adam lay-y-bounden has suffered
because of Boris Ord’s more lively setting and Britten’s for
treble voices. Robert Southwell’s poem New Prince, New
Pomp - which we used to sing as boys at Lichfield - was also set by
Britten in his Ceremony of Carols. Ireland’s homophonic,
compound time setting seems a little tame. The Holy
Boy is really a song but the more chromatic harmonies are
exquisite and far more searching than those of the other carols. The
New Year Carol was also set by Britten but I prefer
Ireland’s setting written for radio.
This generously filled disc comes with an ideal example of a booklet
essay by Jeremy Dibble. Naxos has been able on this occasion to revert to
printing full texts.
All in all then, this disc is a must for any lover of English church