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John IRELAND (1876-1962)
String Quartet No. 1 in D minor (c. 1895-97) [22:18]
String Quartet No. 2 in C minor (1897) [31.55]
The Holy Boy (arr. for string quartet in 1941 of the third of the Four Preludes for piano, from 1913) [03:18]
Maggini Quartet (Laurence Jackson, violin 1; David Angel, violin 2;
Martin Outram, viola; Michal Kaznowski, cello)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, 21-23 January 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557777 [57.30]


John Ireland was born in Bowdon, Cheshire in England to literary parents. He entered the Royal College of Music (RCM) at the age of fourteen in 1893 where his teachers included Frederick Cliffe for piano, Walter Parratt for organ and Charles Stanford for composition.
 
During the first decade of the twentieth century Ireland worked as an organist, choirmaster and pianist, and established his name as a composer with works like the Phantasie Trio (1906). The impact of the Second Violin Sonata (1915-17) at its première in 1917 made Ireland a national figure overnight and within 24 hours of its publication all copies had been sold. Ireland destroyed almost all of his student works, with the exception of the two string quartets that were published posthumously. From 1923 to 1939 he taught at the RCM where his pupils included Britten.
 
Many aspects of Ireland the man are mirrored in his music. His lonely, shy personality had its roots in an unhappy childhood and this perhaps accounts for the melancholy strain in his music. Ireland’s primary inspirations were England’s heritage, its poetry and its landscapes. 
 
The two quartets date from his student years at the RCM. Although his first and second subjects were piano and organ, Ireland harboured ambitions as a composer, and particularly wanted to study with his idol, the eminent and irascible Stanford. Apparently the first quartet was intended as a work which would impress Stanford to take on Ireland as one of his pupils. It was completed in March 1897 and was supposedly rejected by Stanford as, “Dull as ditchwater, m' bhoy”. Stanford, however, subsequently arranged for a group of students to perform it and Ireland was encouraged by the praise given by the influential Director of the RCM, Sir Hubert Parry. Ireland referred to both the first quartet and the second quartet completed the following September, as RCM scholarship pieces. In the event, the result was success since Ireland was awarded a four-year scholarship to study with his hero.
 
For all their assured writing for the medium, Ireland's two quartets show not a trace of the mature composer's personal voice; their models are often said to be Beethoven and Brahms. Brahms died the month after Ireland completed the quartet and was viewed by the young composer as a giant amongst contemporary figures. His music was also especially admired by Stanford.
 
In the excellent booklet notes to this Naxos release Andrew Burn provides detailed and informative descriptions of the two quartets. Given Ireland's idiomatic if unmemorable writing for the string quartet, it is a shame that he never returned to the medium in his maturity. Consequently, the only work for string quartet from his main career is an arrangement, made in 1941, of the third of his Four Preludes for piano, ‘The Holy Boy’, originally composed on Christmas Day 1913. With its wistful melody and subtle shifts of harmony it is quintessential Ireland. Ostensibly this is his 'Carol of the Nativity', as Ireland later embellished the title: a lullaby for the Christ child. The Holy Boy became one of Ireland's most popular works and over the years he made several versions for different instruments and forces.
 
John Ireland’s string quartets have been poorly served in the catalogues. In 1999 the Holywell Ensemble came along and released a recording of them and of the The Holy Boy on ASV CDDCA1017. The performances, although serviceable, are rather on the heavy side and have been accurately described as “sturdy”. Now the award-winning and popular champions of English Music, the Magginis, turn their attention to these same works. They offer well-turned performances, full of freshness and enthusiasm. The excellent players cannot make these scores better than they are but they try manfully to inject some vitality into these rather disappointing juvenile pieces. I detect so much in these scores that are derivative of the sound-worlds of Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann, and I believe far less of Beethoven, Brahms and Dvořák, as so often claimed.
 
Inadvertently, I ended up with two sets of this Naxos release and felt rather put-out when a friend politely declined my offer of a complimentary copy, stating that he already had a recording by the Holywell Ensemble on ASV. If I had been handing out a gratis copy of, say, Beethoven or Mozart Quartets, I’m sure he would have accepted with gratitude. Having now heard these Ireland scores I understand why few will want another version of these youthful works. I believe the market for these quartets is limited as surely those that want them will probably already have the ASV disc. 
 
Hopefully the Maggini Quartet will now look to record the chamber music of Sir Hubert Parry. There are amongst Parry’s mature works a String Quartet in G from 1880 and a String Quintet in E flat from 1909 which are crying out for modern recordings.
 
Michael Cookson
  

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See the John Ireland site on MusicWeb for more information on his life and works

 


 



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