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John Ireland (1879-1962)
Great Things (Hardy) (1925) [2:20]; Three Songs to Poems by Thomas Hardy (1925) [6:31]; Sea Fever (Masefield) (1913) [2:35]; The Bells of San Marie (Masefield) (1919) [2:21]; The Vagabond (Masefield) (1922) [2:03]; Santa Chiara (Palm Sunday: Naples) (A. Symons) (1922) [2:25]; Tryst (in Fountain Court) (A. Symons) (1928) [4:05]; During Music (Rossetti) (1928) [2:16]; Marigold (Impression for Voice and Piano) (1913) [2:31]; Youth’s Spring-Tribute (Rossetti) [3:54]; Penumbra (Rossetti) [4:10]; Spleen (Dowson) [3:03]; I have Twelve Oxen (anon.) (1918) [2:01]; We’ll to the Woods (Housman) (1927) [7:34]; Five Poems by Thomas Hardy (1926) [10:00]; The Cost (Cooper) (1916) [1:47]; When I am dead (C. Rossetti) (1924) [1:50]; The Salley Gardens (Yeats) (1929-31)) [2:10]; Tutto è sciolto (Joyce) (1932) [1:53]; If there were dreams to sell (Beddoes) (1918) [2:33]
Roderick Williams (baritone); Iain Burnside (piano).
rec. 23-25 July 2007, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk. DDD
The English Song Series - 18
NAXOS 8.570467 [65:32]

 

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My war story about John Ireland songs goes back a long way, in fact about 36 years. I was at school in the sixth form. My best friend in those far-off days was rehearsing his ‘O’-level set-songs during lunchtime. He was in mid strophe when I entered the music classroom. After he had finished he asked me if I liked it. “Hmm”, I mumbled, “sounds OK to me … what is it?” He stood on his dignity. “If there were dreams to sell…” he replied. “Who is it by?” I asked tentatively. The look of disgust remains with me to this day. “John Ireland”, he said. “John who?” I rejoined. He walked out the door of the class without further comment. Well, a few weeks later I discovered an old Saga LP that contained a selection of Ireland’s music and I got stuck in. Another friend played The Island Spell to me on my piano and Grove helped. Soon, I guess, I knew more about him that my friend George did. And then, a bit later, I discovered the Lyrita edition … but that is another story.

Alas, there is no suggestion anywhere on the cover of this CD as to whether this is the start of a series or a one–off recital. As it is a part of the ‘English Song Series’ it is my guess that it is a standalone CD. And this is a pity as there is sufficient scope to issue two further CDs that would complement those produced by Lyrita and Hyperion.

The collection has been assembled as a recital rather than in any kind of poet-defined or chronological order. In that sense it is possible to listen to this CD from end to end. Yet I do believe that a solid hour of John Ireland songs is probably a little too much to take in at a single sitting. As always in these cases I suggest a pause about halfway through. Make a few phone calls, look out the window at the spring sunshine, and more importantly pour yourself out a glass of real English ale to sip whilst listening to the second half of the recital. I would recommence my listening with ‘I have Twelve Oxen’.

It is hard to select what is a highlight on this CD - the whole production is excellent and beyond reproach. However a few referential markers may be helpful. Roderick Williams has included a few pot-boilers. Where would any recital of Ireland’s songs be without Sea Fever and If there were dreams to sell? And my favourite Ireland setting is ‘We’ll to the Woods no more’ with its enigmatic epilogue for solo piano. Surely this work is critical to any understanding of the composer’s life and work?

The Salley Gardens is a song that has been often set, I guess. However Ireland’s has the edge over the more ‘folk-song-like’ realisation by Benjamin Britten.

It is interesting that one third of this CD are settings of words by Thomas Hardy – his Great Things set to a ‘rollicking’ tune, the Three Songs and the ‘biographical’ (for Ireland at least) Five Poems. John Masefield is well represented with his ubiquitous Sea Fever, his The Bells of San Marie and The Vagabond. Surely these are redolent of the ‘open road’ dream that many aesthetes held in Edwardian times as perhaps best epitomised by W.H. Davies ‘Autobiography of a Super-Tramp’. Look out for superb settings of texts by James Joyce, the Rossettis, Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson.

It is impossible to fault this CD save in one particular. The singing exceeds what I felt Roderick Williams would bring to the project – the accompaniment is just right – producing a perfect balance between the two performers. Take it from me, it is all too easy to ruin a song like Sea Fever with a ham-fisted bashing of the ivories; Britten once said that you need a strong fist to play Ireland. The programme notes are informative, and more to the point are sympathetic in their exploration of the emotionally and sexually charged nature of the composer’s life: the implicit homo-eroticism is handled sensitively by Andrew Burn. The only downside is the fact that there are no song texts provided. I am lucky to have these in the Lyrita Edition, the Stainer & Bell Complete Edition and my collection of poetry books – but a newcomer to these songs may well enjoy being able to follow the progress of each setting. Naxos must not assume everyone is an enthusiast of English song – at least not until they hear this CD!

This disc contains some of the best interpretations of John Ireland’s songs that I have ever heard – including my school friend’s! It is an absolute must for anyone who claims to be an enthusiast of English Song. But do not throw out your Lyrita or Hyperion editions – for Naxos are some 60 songs shy of the total in Ireland’s catalogue!

John France 

 





 


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