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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor (1908/9) [27'58]
Berceuse (1902) [3'20]
Cavatina (1904) [2'18]
Violin Sonata No. 2 in A minor (1915-1917) [25'19]
Bagatelle (1911) [2'32]
The Holy Boy (1913, arranged 1919) [3'15]
Paul Barritt (violin)
Catherine Edwards (piano)
Recorded on 14–16 December 1995, location unspecified
HELIOS CDH55164 [65.04]

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Originally released on CDA66853 Hyperion now release this Ireland disc on their £6.99 Helios label. Adding low cost to quality performances makes the recommendation doubly tempting but the Ireland admirer will know that there are other recordings of the sonatas that offer considerable rewards. How does this 1995 disc shape up?

The A minor is one of the great British Violin Sonatas and has received a number of sporadic recordings over the years. Barritt and Edwards have been accorded typically sumptuous sound; warm, full of depth and clarity. The balance is well judged albeit there were one or two moments in the more strenuous chordal passages when I felt that Edwards overpowered Barritt. Catherine Edwards emphasises the rather broken piano rhetoric at the start of the opening movement adding little caesuri along the way. Barritt’s tone is firmly centred though not opulent and he and his partner certainly give rein to the eruptive passions and fissures that lie at the sonata’s core. Some of the lyric sections, maybe as a result, are not quite eased into as they might be. A rival recording by Mordkovitch and Brown (in a Chandos set of the complete chamber music) is more leisurely and lacks fire. On Vienna Modern Masters the English violinist Michael Davis (American domiciled, not the ex-leader of the BBC Symphony) joins with the American pianist Nelson Harper. Their performance is more narrowly and boxily recorded but they bring a fervent intensity to the music – and Davis builds up tension at the end of the first movement with a craggy cumulative power. He also possesses a wider range of tone colour and resources than Barritt and isn’t afraid to employ them.

I liked the husky quality – a mixture of frailty and intimacy – that Barritt utilises in the second movement’s opening paragraphs but he’s equally quite direct and fast. Talking of fast it’s best to discount the outrageously motoric recording of this sonata by Oliver Lewis and Jeremy Filsell on Guild, which is coupled with sonatas by Ferguson and Goossens. This is one flashy look-at-me reading you should avoid. I must say that Davis is more aggressive than Barritt and tints more suggestively; the bell peals sound rather more prosaic in the Hyperion traversal as well, even though this is the recording on which one can hear an almost unparalleled amount of piano detail. The famous cantilena at the heart of this movement is never quite "there" though and whilst the finale is full of brio and is taken at a good, firm clip the final impression is of something missing.

The earlier sonata sees some competition from a newly released Daniel Hope - John McCabe recording on ASV (with Lloyd-Webber’s reissued Cello Sonata and the later Piano Trio). Here the Barritt-Edwards pairing doesn’t sound as eager or as "flighted" as others on disc (Alan Loveday/Leonard Cassini or Neaman/Parkin from the days of LP for instance). Barritt has to cede somewhat to Davis’s control of the rhetoric here as he does in the slow movement where Barritt compromises his legato through little infractions of the line. He takes a different perspective to Hope who employs a rapt simplicity. Elsewhere Hope is never afraid to coarsen his tone for proper musico-dramatic effect. Throughout I felt that Barritt and Edwards didn’t quite trust Ireland enough and weren’t content simply to unfold melodic lines.

As a welcome bonus we have some early Ireland morceaux, very persuasively played. The Berceuse gives off a Brahmsian glow whilst the Cavatina hints more at Elgar’s Salut d’amour. I enjoyed the Bagatelle and was surprised to find that this arrangement of The Holy Boy wasn’t published.

Recommendations for the sonatas; I’ve not mentioned the Dutton release where Ireland plays both works, the first with Grinke, the second with Sammons. Unless you are addicted to DDD this is obviously a necessary purchase. They also happen to be the best performances on record. Otherwise you have a quandary. Hyperion has better sound than Vienna Modern Masters but I prefer Davis and Harper to Barritt and Edwards. They get more to the heart of both works and do so more expressively. Hope is fearless in I; Mordkovitch tends to be rather too relaxed in both. If you hadn’t heard other performances you would do well by the Hyperion pairing. They do nothing wrong; they play sensitively and well and are superbly recorded. But I would prefer Hope in 1 and Davis in 2. Not much of a recommendation I know, so my cost-cutting Gordian knot recommendation is to go to the source and pick up the Dutton with its two historic performances coupled with the Phantasie Trio. And then perhaps the BBC might like to dust off their Eda Kersey-Kathleen Long 1944 broadcast of Sonata No.2 and add that to the mix – or could Dutton itself do the honours, adding Arthur Catterall’s Bantock sonata recording.

Jonathan Woolf

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