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John Ireland (1879-1962)
Piano Works - Volume 3
Piano Sonata (1918-1920) [23:24]
Soliloquy (1922) [3:10]
Preludes: The Undertone; Obsession; The Holy Boy; Fire of Spring (1913-15) [11:17]
The Almond Trees (1913) [4:06]
On a Birthday Morning (1922) [3:05]
Green Ways: The Cherry Tree; Cypress; The Palm and May (1937) [7:47]
Two Pieces: For Remembrance; Amberley Wild Brooks (1921) [7:15]
Equinox (1922) [2:16]
Spring will not Wait (1926-27) [3:41]
Ballade of London Nights (c.1930) [7:11]
John Lenehan (piano)
rec. Champs Hill, Coldwaltham, West Sussex, 1-3 March 2007
NAXOS 8.570461 [73:12]

 

Experience Classicsonline


I assume that this is the last of the three discs that John Lenehan and Naxos are devoting to the piano works of John Ireland. I must say that I am disappointed that it does not seem to be a complete cycle. Three works from the canon appear to be missing from this edition – the Three Dances, Indian Summer and the Sea Idyll. I guess that there is an excuse for Indian Summer as it is not part of the Stainer and Bell Complete Piano Works. However, the other two works are printed here. Perhaps Naxos feels that the Sea Idyll is somehow unrepresentative? And maybe the Dances are deemed to be ‘teaching music’ and therefore unworthy of the cognoscenti’s attention. This is a pity and one thinks of tar and ha’pennies …..

Yet perhaps I nitpick, for this CD is an excellent addition to the growing conspectus of John Ireland’s Piano Music. There are now some four ‘complete’ editions in circulation although I think that Eric Parkin on Chandos is only available as MP3 download. Additionally Mark Bebbington is adding to the lists.

My introduction to Ireland’s piano music was by way of the old Lyrita records cut by Parkin and now happily available on CD. There is definitely a ‘touch of magic’ in these recordings that seems to be lacking from Lenehan’s playing. Yet there is much that impresses me in this present Volume 3.

My favourite John Ireland piano number is Spring Will Not Wait which is actually an epilogue to the Housman song-cycle We’ll to the Woods No More. The piece is meant to summarise and comment upon the foregoing songs. It is a complex miniature that is full of Ireland’s bitter-sweet harmonies and other characteristic fingerprints. Yet this present version does not work for me. It seems a little fast in places and some of the detail manages to get lost: somehow my interest in the music seems to disappear mid-piece – and is not really recovered. And this is in a piece that has meant so much to me over the years! I listened to this track three times to try to bottom out what is wrong –and I guess that we are back to one word – magic.

Now the Soliloquy is a different matter. This is a piece that is in my gift and I have always enjoyed playing it to the best of my limited abilities. Lenehan seems to capture the mood of introspection well and perhaps his slightly faster tempi stop the piece from becoming too sentimental.

I enjoyed the performance of the Ballade of London Nights. This was a work that Ireland had left unfinished at the time of his death. It was completed by judicious use of the opening material and was published posthumously. London Nights is believed to have been written about 1931, although there are conflicting views about this. Of course it is one of a number of pieces in which Ireland celebrated the Capital City. The slightly programmatic content of the music is supposed to be suggestive of an early evening in Chelsea followed by a more rumbustious session in Soho and then a quite reflective moment on the Embankment by the river. Yet the programme – if there actually be one – is largely redundant: the music works ‘absolutely’.

The most important composition on this CD is the Piano Sonata. This demanding work was written between 1918 and 1920 and is one of the great Sonatas in the 20th century piano repertoire. Ireland is reported to have said that the first movement was about “Life” the second was “more ecstatic” and the last was “inspired by a rough autumnal day on Chanctonbury Ring & [the] old British Encampment”.  Ireland’s music has certainly been influenced by the Sussex Downs – Mai-Dun, The Forgotten Rite and the Legend for piano and orchestra all evoke this part of England. I enjoyed Lenehan’s playing of this complex work. He manages to explore and even perhaps get behind some of the deepest mysteries in this work. The light and shade in this Sonata is well defined by the pianist and the interest never flags for a moment. I think the CD is worth purchasing for this performance alone.

Lenehan provides a convincing recital of most of the other pieces on this CD. In particular I was impressed by his performance of the Preludes – finding that he brought some new insights to Fire of Spring in particular.  Greenways are approached with feeling and understanding – especially Ireland’s reflection on the Cherry Tree – which must forever suggest Housman’s depressing lines about the transience of life. I feel that On a Birthday Morning lacks a little of the Grainger ‘clattering’ dynamic.  The piece was composed for erstwhile choirboy Arthur George Miller’s birthday and is signed to be played ‘gaily’ and proceeding ‘fresh and joyous.’ It just seems to me to lack a little vitality.

And lastly one of the minor pleasures of this disc is the relatively unknown The Almond Trees. This miniature, which makes use of the pentatonic scale, is quite unusual in Ireland’s works. It is both impressionistic and bewitching.

For Remembrance from Two Pieces (1921) is well played (look out for a prophecy of ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’!). One of my Ireland ‘touchstone’ pieces is Amberley Wild Brooks. As a place it holds a special magic for me and as music it is a fine ‘evocation of the beauty of the Sussex countryside’. Lenehan presents this piece as an urbane composition. It is certainly a town person and not a rustic looking at the landscape. There are no cows here. However, the water motif is never far away from this enchanting work.

And finally, Equinox is a difficult piece to bring off. The metrical imbalance of the work must always have a tendency to lead to errors of judgement in any interpretation. Yet Lenehan presents this involved evocation of the Sussex countryside with considerable accomplishment.

I can certainly recommend this CD. I accept that John Lenehan would not be my first choice. Perhaps, as I suggested above, I am seduced by the recordings that I have lived with most of my adult life? Maybe I feel that both Parkin and Rowlands worked with the composer and had an added insight to his intentions. Yet there is much in this present CD that impressed me. Over and above the Sonata the highlights are The Almond Trees, Equinox and Amberley Wild Brooks.

The bottom line is that any recording of the piano music by a professional and accomplished pianist is interesting and deserves out attention. John Lenehan provides an important addition to the repertoire which is largely dominated by Eric Parkin.

John France 

 





 


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