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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Mai-Dun (1921) [11:04]
The Forgotten Rite (1913/18) [7:09]
Satyricon Overture (1944/46) [8:45]
The Overlanders Suite (1946/47) (arr. Sir Charles Mackerras) [19:27]
A London Overture (1936) [12:14]
Epic March (1942) [8:18]
Hallé Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. 24-25 March 2007, BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester, England. DDD
HALLÉ CD HLL 7523[67:41]

Experience Classicsonline

Currently there seems to be no stopping the resurgence of interest in John Ireland's music. His cause is certainly being helped by a number of new and reissued recordings, a splendid biography The Music of John Ireland by Fiona Richards (2000) and the hard work by the John Ireland Charitable Trust.

It is not difficult to imagine a wry and knowing smile of satisfaction on the face of Ireland's great teacher Sir Charles Stanford. Although their relationship was often fraught and his teacher's methods considered harsh the influential Stanford loved to see his pupils having success. Ireland certainly came a long way from his days as a vulnerable young student at the Royal College of Music (1897-1901). An easy target for ridicule by attending his early classes wearing knickerbockers and boots; goodness knows what psychological damage he was caused. In 1898 the great master Stanford said to his young pupil, 'All water and Brahms me bhoy and more water than Brahms …Study some Dvořák for a bit and bring me something that isn't like Brahms' ('Charles Villiers Stanford' by Paul Rodmell, Ashgate 2002). Stanford's rebuke seemingly did the trick and Ireland soon produced his precocious and charming Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet. 
The opening track of this Hallé label disc is the symphonic rhapsody Mai-Dun that Ireland completed in 1921. It seems that the score was inspired by Maiden Castle, the Iron Age hill fort, a structure that reflected Ireland's great interest in historic sites such as fortifications and pagan burial sites. Throughout one is aware of the variegated nature of the score alternating the serious nature of war with calmer passages representing peace.

The tone poem The Forgotten Rite was composed in 1913/14. The work is a product of Ireland's interest in the archaeological sites on the island of Jersey and his fascination with the Arcadian vision of the Greek God Pan. A strong undercurrent is the sense of mystery and one can easily imagine the scene of dawn breaking over a stormy seascape.

The inspiration for the orchestral overture Satyricon from 1944/46 was literary. The character of the boy Giton from the 'Satyricon' of Petronius Arbiter appealed strongly to Ireland. I enjoyed the energetic and effervescent rhythms that at times seemed distinctly Bernsteinesque. With shimmering and soaring string melodies of increasing intensity Ireland inhabits a soundworld close to that of say Max Steiner's score to Victor Fleming's Hollywood blockbuster Gone with the Wind (1939). I loved the strong bucolic feel of the solo passage for clarinet followed by the flute at 4:01-4:57.

Also in the year 1946 Ireland was commissioned to write the score to the film The Overlanders. The Harry Watt film recounted the hazardous journey of driving cattle across the vast country of Australia. John Wilson conducts the five movement suite prepared by Sir Charles Mackerras and published in 1971. I was reminded of the suitability of Ireland's music to Baz Luhrmann's film Australia the 2008 epic romance starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman which shares an uncannily similar plot to that of The Overlanders. In particular I enjoyed the third movement Intermezzo: Open Country which is convincingly evocative of Jackaroos on horseback driving herds of cattle across the Australian bush.

In the manner of Elgar's Cockaigne Overture (In London Town) and Vaughan Williams' A London Symphony Ireland was inspired by the sights and sounds of London to write an orchestral score. His A London Overture (1936) is a reworking of the earlier Comedy Overture from 1934 scored for brass band. With music that never reaches anywhere close to the heights of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, Ireland's moderately convincing score seems to lose its way especially in the middle section.

In 1942 Ireland was commissioned by the British Ministry of Information to write a morale boosting patriotic score; the Epic March was the result. It seems that the score contains several musical references to various personalities that were significant in Ireland's life. At times in the Epic March I heard slight reminders of the Walford Davies/George Dyson RAF March Past. Despite the enthusiastic promptings of conductor John Wilson the Epic March, although agreeable, only revealed to me its lacklustre quality.

The music of John Ireland is served extremely well by John Wilson and the Hallé who are on splendid form. These engaging and refreshing readings serve to reinforce to me how far the orchestra has come in recent years. The sound quality from Studio 7 at the BBC at Oxford Road, Manchester is a credit to the engineers. Fiona Richards's booklet notes are as authoritative as I had expected.

Michael Cookson

see also review by John France February RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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