CD Review

A neglected English composer: John Ireland


© Chris Green, March 2012

John Ireland (1879-1962

John Ireland was born in 1879 and this year marks the 50 th anniversary of his death in 1962. For many of us, of a certain age, the name is a familiar one because music examinations would often include one of his piano pieces or songs. He was adept at composing so called “miniatures” which, in a few minutes, could conjure up a particular scene or mood.

Just as with many artists, certain landscapes continued to fascinate him. The Channel; islands, and the counties of Dorset and Sussex in the south of England held a lifelong fascination for the composer who had attended classes at the Royal College of Music and whose teachers included Charles Villiers Stanford, but it was Sir Hubert Parry who realised the talent that the young Ireland had. Despite encouragement from his mother (who was to die during his first year at the Music Conservatoire), Ireland lacked the confidence to allow some of his early works to be performed and many were put away in a drawer, only to surface towards the end of his life.

The budget label Naxos is to be commended therefore in recording many of Ireland’s works for voice and for instruments with a Trio for clarinet, cello andpiano reconstructed by Canadian, Stephen Fox being given its first recording in a programme in which the clarinet features in a dominant musical role. Robert Plane is the clarinettist with Sophia Rachman (piano),Alice Neary (cello) and David Pyatt (horn). The Maggini Quartet join for the Sextet forclarinet, horn and quartet composed in 1898. In between the two major chamber works comes the gentle song (in a version for clarinet and piano) The Holy Boy (1913) and the Fantasy Sonata for the same combination during the darkest days of the Second World War. As usual, the accompanying CD booklet offers a full and illuminating commentary on the background to these works which feature Ireland’s favourite instrument, the clarinet ( Naxos 8.570550).

The songs are a joy to hear and, even more so, to sing. Roderick Williams (baritone) and Iain Burnside (piano) traverse twenty-seven of these brief masterpieces which include some of his most famous settings such as Sea Fever (1913), If there were dreams to sell (1918) and Vagabond (1922). Often the writing is muscular, at other times so gentle ( Naxos 8.570467). The recording was made in the calm of the Suffolk countryside at Potton Hall, near Ipswich.

The Ireland legacy continues on the Naxos label with John Lenehan playing ten of his piano works (Naxos 8.553889), and here there are all the typical Ireland’s thumbprints – the love of melody in the right hand, the little grace notes that decorate the melodies and the surprising harmines which display the influence of Ravel, Stravinsky and Gershwin. The 1996 recording is outstanding, but then look at the name of the producer and engineer, Chris Craker who has gone on to serve in senior positions in the recording industry.

If Stanford and Parry were guiding hands for John Ireland, to a greater or lesser extent, look at British composers who were taught by Ireland. One was a young student called Benjamin Britten.