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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Trio in D for clarinet, cello and piano (ed. & reconstr. by Stephen Fox) (1912-3) [23:15]
Fantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano (1943) [13:33]
The Holy Boy for clarinet and piano (1913) [2:44]
Sextet for clarinet, French horn and string quartet (1898) [26:52]
Robert Plane (clarinet); Sophie Rahman (piano); Alice Neary (cello, Trio); David Pyatt (French horn, Sextet); Maggini Quartet, Lorraine McAslan (violin 1); David Angel (violin 2); Martin Outram (viola); Michal Kaznowski (cello)
rec. 20-21 April 2008, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk (trio & fantasy); 25 April 2008, St.Silas Church, Chalk Farm, London (sextet & Boy). DDD
NAXOS 8.570550 [66:25]
Experience Classicsonline

It is fortunate that Stephen Fox has written a fine essay on the rediscovery and realisation of John Ireland’s ‘forgotten’ Clarinet Trio. Any listener of this work – or potential purchaser of this Naxos CD - could do a lot worse than to read this article. It is an excellent example of musical scholarship that is not too demanding on the reader’s technical knowledge.
The Trio was composed in 1912-13 and was first performed at a Thomas Dunhill chamber concert in the Steinway Hall on 9 June 1914. The soloists were Charles Draper, who was known as the grandfather of English clarinettists, May Mukle (cello) and the composer played the piano. Unfortunately, although the concert is mentioned in the Musical Times, there is no criticism of the piece.
John Ireland withdrew the work after a couple of performances and reworked some of the material into a ‘conventional’ Piano Trio; however this did not come to fruition. Some of the music was finally used in the Piano Trio No. 3 of 1938.
The Clarinet Trio is a million miles away in stylistic terms from the early Sextet - also on this CD. For one thing, the composer has by now established his own individual voice. Gone is the sound-world of Brahms and Stanford, to be replaced by the influence of Debussy and perhaps even Ravel. However, in spite of the French flavour, Stephen Fox is right in suggesting that much of this music could not have been written by anyone other than a British composer.
This is a great discovery for a host of reasons. But, as I listened to this piece, I felt that the overriding achievement has been the resurrection of a quintessential Ireland work. It is an interesting composition that has many highlights and not a few truly lovely moments. It is a piece that will have to work its way into the British Music enthusiast’s psyche, however, even a superficial hearing is enough to convince the listener that it is certainly an injustice that this work has been unheard and unavailable for such a long time. Full marks to Stephen Fox!
I often reflect that one of the earliest Ireland pieces that I heard was the Fantasy Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. I think I knew this work even before my school-boy discovery of the song "If there were Dreams to Sell", The Holy Boy or the London Pieces which I seem to have known and loved all my life. I cannot now recall if it was a live performance, a radio broadcast or a vinyl recording that introduced me to this work some 38 years ago – but it has remained a favourite ever since. It is not a long piece of music, but in the space of just under quarter of an hour Ireland seems to say so many things – and every note is worthy of its composer. The Fantasy Sonata is a single movement work that harks back to the earlier Phantasy Trio written for the Cobbett competitions in the early years of the twentieth century. However, the Fantasy is actually presented in three related, but unrepeated sections. It achieves a perfect balance between a Cobbett-ian phantasy and a formal sonata.
This is a late work, written during some of the darkest days of the Second World War. Bruce Phillips reminds the listener that Ireland had to flee his beloved Guernsey in 1940 shortly before the Germans invaded. So it is hardly surprising that this, his most important work since Sarnia, is full of introspection and reflection.
The Fantasy Sonata was to be Ireland’s last major chamber work. I wrote in another review that I felt there was nothing ‘end of term’ about this music: this present performance reinforces this view. It is a stunning Sonata that is both difficult and satisfying for performers. It can be seen as a work that sums up and consummates the composer’s career.
The Holy Boy, for clarinet and piano, is an attractive, but rarely presented, version of this ubiquitous piece. I guess that most amateur pianists have approached the original tune with varying degrees of success and confidence over the years. However, there are also versions for string orchestra, organ, four-part choir and cello and piano – so the present edition is an interesting addition to the catalogue. The piece, written in 1913 was originally the third of Four Preludes for piano finally published in 1917. The inspiration for the original incarnation of this work was Bobby Glassby, a chorister at St Luke’s Church in Chelsea. The present recording made use of the transcription for viola and piano.
The Sextet was written after the nineteen year old composer had attended a concert at the St James’ Hall. Here, he heard Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet with Richard Mühlfeld and the Joachim Quartet. Ireland was impressed by both the work and the ‘revelation’ of the clarinet playing. He immediately set to work on this present work, and took the opportunity to add the French Horn to the ensemble. The Sextet was modelled on the chamber music and symphonic structure of Brahms.
Although the work was tried out at the Royal College of Music under the auspices of Charles Villiers Stanford, it was never formally performed. Stanford apparently enjoyed the first and second movements but felt that the final ‘in tempo moderato’ was ‘not organic’.
Over a century later, musicologists have found that it is harder to agree with this sentiment. Lewis Foreman has suggested that it is in this last movement that the “younger composer was beginning tentatively to find himself.”
A final evaluation of this work must recognise that the Sextet owes much to the musical ethos of Stanford and by definition Johannes Brahms. It is a work that gives relatively little intimation of the John Ireland that was to emerge in later years. There is a whole musical world separating this Sextet and a piece such as the Piano Sonata or the Fantasy Sonata. Yet, as an example of a student work that is exemplified by a youthful freshness, that reveals a good understanding of instrumentation and form and is never short of invention, it is an essential piece for every enthusiast of John Ireland’s musical heritage.
It is unfortunate that this work remained unperformed for over sixty years. Fortunately, the composer had not destroyed it, but had kept the score in a drawer. He was persuaded to allow the work to be given at a Hampton Music Club concert on 25 March 1960.
The performances of these works are first rate. This recording makes a fine stable-mate to the Melos and Holywell Ensemble versions of the Sextet on ASV and Lyrita and the Fantasy Sonata played by Gervase de Peyer and Eric Parkin on the latter label.
The programme notes are good, but perhaps could have been a little more fulsome, although I accept that Stephen Fox does give a good account of the Trio as noted above.
This CD is a must for all Ireland enthusiasts – however many recordings of the Fantasy Sonata there are (9); there is always room for one more – and this present CD is a great one!
John France

Other reviews of John Ireland on Naxos



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