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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Piano Music

Eric Parkin (piano)
rec. January 1975, Kingsway Hall, London. ADD
3 CDs for the price of 2
First issued on LP as SRCS87-89, Ireland Piano Music Vols. 1-3
LYRITA SRCD.2277 [3 CDs: 56:09 + 52:45 + 51:04]

CD 1 [56:09]
Decorations (The Island Spell; Moonglade; The Scarlet Ceremonies) (1912) [10:15]; The Almond Trees [3:33]; Four Preludes (The Undertone; Obsession; The Holy Boy; Fire of Spring) (1913-15) [11:03]; Prelude in E flat [5:14]; Rhapsody (1915) [7:50]; The Towing-Path [3:40]; Merry Andrew [3:02]; London Pieces (Chelsea Reach; Ragamuffin; Soho Forenoons) (1917-20) [11:32]
CD 2 [52:45]
Summer Evening (1919) [4:15]; Piano Sonata (1918-20) [24:05]; Two Pieces (For Remembrance, Amberley Wild Brooks) (1921) [7:01]; The Darkened Valley (1921) [3:42]; Equinox (1922) [2:22]; On a Birthday Morning (1922) [3:19]; Soliloquy (1925) [3:13]; Two Pieces (April, Bergomask) (1925) [7:48]
CD 3 [51:04]
Sonatina (1926-27) [9:50]; Ballade (1929) [9:26]; Two Pieces (February’s Child, Aubade) (1929, 1930) [7:52]; Month’s Mind (1933) [4:25]; Greenways: Three Lyric Pieces (The Cherry Trees; Cypress; The Palm and May) (1938) [8:01]; Sarnia – An Island Sequence (Le Catioroc; In a May Morning; Song of the Springtides) (1939-40) [20:30]

Have you ever wondered what it must have been like to roam the lanes and fields of England in the 1930s and in those golden years before the Great War? You can read that great travel writer H.V. Morton, perhaps his ‘In Search of England’ and imagine it from his vivid descriptions. But Oh, how much more real it is, for me anyway, to feel the period through the music, and this is just what can often be achieved with the orchestral and with the piano music of John Ireland. The titles alone evoke another era. ‘Amberley Wild Brooks’ (where I first heard a nightingale, not far from the little Norman church) where Ireland would gaze across the meadows into the woodland. There’s ‘The Towing Path’ and ‘The Darkened Valley’, titles redolent of a deeply rural landscape.

Having lived in South Sussex for three years and many a time walked the South Downs near to his home, and done the Ireland trail - not an official one, just one which a composer friend and I had devised - I feel quite close to his sound-world and sources of inspiration.

These recordings by Eric Parkin were not the first put out by Lyrita. A decade or so earlier Alan Rowlands had recorded the piano music on five LPs in mono. I have not heard these but I have heard Alan play Ireland live. He gives to the music a more impressionistic sheen, which is beautiful. Parkin finds a tougher, more granitic approach to the works. Anyway these older recordings are to appear Spring 2008, so we shall soon see.

When listening to these three CDs it is probably advisable to take them in order because the music is presented chronologically. For instance, disc 1 opens with the pre-WW1 (just) ‘Decorations’, which surprises in that it’s quite obviously Debussy in Sussex or London. Here is where I remember Rowlands scoring in his coruscating delicacy of sound. Nevertheless Parkin is impressive and handles the sustaining pedal with a delicate subtlety. In a way this is my favourite Ireland. I want to linger with these early works and am loath to move on … but I must.

Ireland is not just a miniaturist. I should go on to the major work for piano in Ireland’s output the ‘Piano Sonata’. Before I do I must take a little glance at some slightly earlier works with London titles because its not just Sussex which we associate with Ireland. It’s also the Chelsea area near the Thames in titles like ’Chelsea Reach’ and ‘Soho Forenoons’. Also many works – like ‘Ragamuffin’ – were written in London even if it is not directly evoked. Ireland had a home in Chelsea for 55 years. By the time he composed these pieces he had a more individual ability to bring to mind the gentle lapping of waves of the Thames on a quiet afternoon without resorting to Debussian whole tonality. Nevertheless it’s this attention to pianistic detail coupled with a rough, slightly archaic power which can be heard in the Piano Sonata; the question is: which version?

Erik Parkin, like most others, offers us the original version. In 1951 Ireland revised it. I was wondering to what extent these revisions were important when a short but handy article by John Talbot came my way - and indeed the way of all members of the British Music Society - (BMS Journal Vol.20 p.47). The 1951 edition has not been republished despite the almost seventy alterations. Nevertheless in the new year the society will be releasing a CD of this version to be played by Malcolm Binns and very interesting it will prove. For now I will only say that Erik Parkin tackles this formidable work with passion and panache. The composer apparently knew that he had written a fine work. John Talbot remarks that "Ireland’s sonata is arguably the greatest single example of its kind yet written by a British composer." The excellent CD booklet notes by the much lamented Christopher Palmer, from the original LP sleeves are somewhat more reserved, simply stating that "Ireland sidesteps none of the traditional formal issues". Curiously enough a fine book, which is a bit of a bible on John Ireland, by Muriel V. Searle (Midas Books, Speldhurst, 1979), which was commissioned by the friends of John Ireland, devotes only a paltry paragraph to the work; far less in fact than to ‘Amberley Wild Brooks’. There are those who find little in the sonata of interest. E.J. Moeran, a long-standing friend of Ireland, remarked on its ‘over-complexity of harmonic texture’. Muriel Searle calls it rugged and energetic, and talks of its ‘bold contours’. I do not entirely feel a strong enough ruggedness in this performance and would like to hear the new version on Naxos, by John Lenehan who has reached volume three in his complete survey of Ireland’s piano music.

Another landscape which had strong associations for the composer was the Channel Islands. This is reflected in several works, not least, the three late evocative pieces which constitute the cycle he called ‘Sarnia’. This is really a three movement tone-poem sonata, written partially on Guernsey (which is ‘Sarnia’) at the start of World War 2. It was completed in London circa 1940. This seems to be escapist music. By this I mean escape into the world I discussed at the start, that of the 1920s and 1930s; an England fast disappearing. The ancient landscapes to which Ireland was so sensitive vanishing under concrete and the debris of war. After this Ireland hardly wrote for the piano again, for that most intimate of musical vehicles. Perhaps he thought he could disguise himself in his old world, but it longer seemed to be relevant. From now on it was to be film music which called him, to a certain extent anyway, after 1945 - the music of a new world.

Anyone with a love of British music should own a recording of John Ireland’s piano music. Whether it’s this version or the developing Naxos one, or whether you wait for Alan Rowlands I can’t say. Perhaps it’s because I have grown up with Eric Parkin’s interpretation but I genuinely feel that he gets to the heart of almost all of the music, especially the shorter pieces. I would not want to be without these versions.


Gary Higginson


see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Jonathan Woolf


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