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
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
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!