thoughtful, emotionally fleet and powerfully recorded
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John IRELAND (1879-1961)
Violin Sonata No. 2 (1917) [28:16]
Fantasy-Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1943) [13:52]
Greenways, Three Lyric Pieces: No.1, The Cherry Tree (1937) [2:37]
Two Pieces: No.1, April (1925) [4:06]
The Towing-Path (1918) [4:16]
Spring will not wait (1927) [4:08]
Decorations: No.1, The Island Spell (1912) [3:26]
Month’s Mind (1933) [4:54]
Summer Evening (1919) [4:11]
Four Preludes; No.3, The Holy Boy (1913) [2:53]
Spring Sorrow (1918) arr.piano [1:50]
Tessa Robbins (violin) Thea King (clarinet) Alan Rowlands (piano)
rec. 1962 (Sonatas) and 2000, Yewfield, Lake District, UK (piano pieces) HERITAGE HTGCD197 [74:37]
The vaults of those small but valuable LP labels such as Saga have yet to be fully explored. This transfer is an example of the company’s full-blooded commitment to British music though, as will be seen, Heritage’s restoration is not exactly like-for-like.
The distinctive green jacket of the 1962 mono LP carried an ‘In Memoriam’ for John Ireland. There’s a less pressing reason for Heritage to have included that element in its artwork and notes though it would have been contextually relevant at least to note the fact. Harold Rutland’s original sleeve notes have been retained for the two sonatas but replaced by a note from the pianist Alan Rowlands and the reason for that is that his portion of the disc, in which he was represented by several solo piano works (the three pieces that make up Decorations and the evergreen The Holy Boy), has been replaced by nine performances made many years later in 2000.
The Violin Sonata is performed by Tessa Robbins and Rowlands. Robbins had studied at the Royal College with the work’s dedicatee and first performer, Albert Sammons, so was ideally placed interpretatively to perform it. Eight or so years later her fellow Sammons student Alan Loveday recorded Ireland’s First Sonata, a work Sammons never cared for, for Revolution Records. Robbins takes excellent tempi, though arguably that for the finale could be a touch less discursive. Her tone is not big but well-focused and she fully understands the necessity for phrasal elasticity and for dramatic contrast. Her cantilena in the superb slow movement is excellent, though her vibrato colour and speed is more audible in the LP than in this transfer; once or twice Rowlands overparts her. If her slowings in the finale, the better to emphasise its uneasy emphatic paragraphs, seem in any way problematic they are counterbalanced by her confident conquering of the music’s dramatic potential. Sadly, Robbins had a negligible career as a recording artist. She made a 10” disc of titbits for Embassy, hardly a starry label, and played the solo role in Scheherazade when she led the so-called ‘Embassy Symphony Orchestra’. Very fortunately her broadcast of Eugene Goossens’s Violin Concerto has survived and her own commitment to contemporary British music is reflected in other broadcast examples.
Thea King was luckier in that respect, enjoying an admired presence in the catalogues as well as on the recital platform. Here too she enjoys the advantage of lineage and of what antique dealers would term provenance. Her teacher, later husband, was Frederick Thurston who was dedicatee and first performer of the Fantasy-Sonata. Sammons’ 1929 performance of the A minor Sonata with the composer can be heard on Dutton as can Thurston’s wartime broadcast with Ireland of the Fantasy-Sonata. Both offer invaluable stylistic and tempo guidance for performers. King and Rowlands are just a touch steadier than Thurston and Ireland – in that respect they are very close to the later Lyrita recording by de Peyer and Parkin. King plays with fluidity and elegance, her tone warm and vivid, the compact architecture of the music revealed with great perception by both musicians.
The piano pieces are something of a mystery to me. They were recorded in Yewfield in the Lake District in spring 2000. They are unedited and I wonder, therefore, if they were intended for release at some point or are part of the pianist’s effects. He had just retired from his teaching responsibility at the RCM and was in his early 70s. His well-known 1959-63 Lyrita traversal of Ireland’s complete solo piano music is still available, but it would be interesting to know why his Saga sequence wasn’t restored alongside the two sonatas. True, it wasn’t quite as well recorded and there is more music in these 2000 recordings. Though the studio sound is rather dry, the relative disparity in sound quality is the more obvious.
A comparison of the Lyrita and Heritage readings shows that the former are the more textually rich and nuanced. The level of sentiment and phrasal freedom is higher than in the rather straighter, lighter, more direct 2000 readings. To simplify, the later Rowlands somewhat streamlined his approach, bringing a greater simplicity and objectivity to bear. He is still fully at one with the music but this more distanced view is interesting to hear. One other thing to note is the performance of the transcription of the song Spring Sorrow, which he didn’t record for Lyrita.
The sonatas were pretty well balanced and there was distinctive room ambience. What I found from several auditions of the LPs was that the surfaces were gritty and prone to be clicky. One tends to romanticise the days of LPs when skating, groove jumping and swish proved problematic. This transfer has somewhat constricted the mono sound, so that ambience is restricted. The transfer level is also quite low so you will almost certainly need a treble boost; possibly this is because the Sonata imparted quite an edge to Tessa Robbins’ violin tone and this was considered to best way to remedy it.
We are almost spoiled for choice when it comes to Ireland’s chamber and solo piano music these days so these mono incarnations may seem lacking in hi-fi sex appeal. But they are valuable for their second-generation status and for revealing how Ireland’s original interpreters passed on the lineage to their students and, thence, beyond.
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