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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Phantasie Trio in A minor (1906/7) [11:26]
Piano Trio No. 2 in E major (1917) [12:54]
Piano Trio No. 3 in E major (1938) [24:39]
Berceuse for violin and piano (1902) [3:08]
Cavatina for violin and piano (1904) [3:01]
Bagatelle for violin and piano (1911) [3:03]
The Holy Boy for violin and piano (1913 arr. 1919) [3:03]
Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin); Alice Neary (cello); Benjamin Frith (piano))
rec. 13-15 June 2008, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, England. DDD
NAXOS 8.570507 [60:34]
Experience Classicsonline

The resurgence of interest in John Ireland’s music is welcome and personally very pleasing. I can almost imagine the wry and knowing smile of satisfaction on the face of Ireland’s great teacher Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Although relationships were often fraught and his methods harsh the influential Stanford loved to see his pupils progressing. Ireland certainly came a long way from his early days at the Royal College of Music (1897-1901) when in 1898 his great master said to the then very young student, “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). The product of this remark was Ireland’s composition of the precocious and charming Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet.

This new Naxos issue features the three piano trios. The Gould Piano Trio is an outstanding ensemble that I have seen perform live several times. In recital I have been impressed by the Gould’s consistently high level of performance and have generally found their standard of music-making exceptional. 

In 1907 Ireland gained considerable attention with his Phantasie Trio in A minor, a tuneful and appealing single movement score dedicated to Stanford. The work was an entry for the ‘1907 Cobbett Competition for Phantasy Piano Trio’ one of the series (1905-19) of prestigious events instituted by Walter Willson Cobbett to promote British chamber music. Like all entries the score had to follow Cobbett’s ‘Phantasy’ (often spelt Phantasie) convention of being designed in one continuous movement, the parts to be of equal importance and not to last more than twelve minutes. According to B. Hodges, Ireland’s Phantasie Trio in A minor came third - the booklet notes claim it was second prize - to the winning entry Frank Bridge’s Phantasy in C minor and the runner-up James Friskin’s Phantasy in E minor. (‘W.W. Cobbett’ doctoral dissertation by Betsi Hodges, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, USA. 2008). Ireland’s score was premiered to significant acclaim by the London Trio at London’s Aeolian Hall in January 1909.

The A minor Phantasie Trio opens with a section marked In tempo moderato. It has a densely textured Brahmsian quality that conveys a feeling of warm and carefree abandon. I enjoyed the Meno mosso, quasi andantino with its abundance of romantic sentimentality. The section marked Temp I is sad and yearning but is interspersed with brisker dance-like episodes. In the Vivace e giocoso the dark clouds dissolve to reveal brilliant sunlight culminating in a vivacissimo conclusion.

Completed in 1917 during his employment as organist/choirmaster at St. Luke’s Church, Chelsea it is difficult not to view Ireland’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E major as his personal reaction to the horrors of the Great War. It seems that the single movement score was a reworking of an earlier D major Trio for clarinet, cello and piano. The premičre of the score was given at the Wigmore Hall, London in June 1917 played by violinist Albert Sammons, cellist Charles Warwick-Evans with Ireland at the piano.

In the Piano Trio No. 2 the opening section Poco lento conveys a heartbreaking yearning and passion. To an extent the section marked Allegro giusto (quasi doppio movimento) is suggestive of the marching tread of the infantry contrasting with the beautiful yearning quality of the Andante. The section marked Allegro agitato offers troubled and disconcerting writing that precedes the Finale, a Largamente conveying mixed moods and emotions.

The Piano Trio No. 3 in E major completed in 1938 bears a dedication to William Walton. This is a sign of Ireland’s high regard for Walton as he rarely dedicated his scores. Here Ireland uses material from an earlier clarinet trio that had laid in a drawer for well over two decades. Cast in four movements the Trio No. 3 received its first radio broadcast in April 1938 in a performance by Antonio Brosa (violin), Antoni Sala (cello) and Ireland as pianist.

The score opens with an Allegro moderato movement that immediately gave me a sense of speed and dashing almost darting around. Ireland combines this with gentle passages of passion. Rhythmic and jerky, the Scherzo conveys a curious mood of rather bewildering intentions. It feels clear that the Andante cantabile movement is music of love. It heaves with beauty and passion with just a slight undercurrent of tension. I enjoyed the briskly played Con moto, Finale - a carefree outpouring of joy and excitement.

Scored for violin and piano, the Berceuse (1902), Cavatina (1904) and Bagatelle (1911) are melodic if rather inconsequential pieces for the drawing room. Although I have never quite understood its popularity The Holy Boy is the Ireland score one is most likely to encounter. Composed on Christmas Day in 1913 as a piano piece this light, dance-like piece appears in various guises. Ireland made this revision for violin and piano around 1919. 

The competition for recordings of Ireland’s chamber music is spearheaded by the Chandos set (see review) that fits eight chamber scores on two discs and is the most obvious choice. This is expertly performed by Lydia Mordkovitch (violin), Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), Ian Brown (piano) and Karine Georgian (cello). It features the two violin sonatas, all three works for piano trio, the Fantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano, the Cello Sonata and The Holy Boy for cello and piano. 

On reissued Lyrita I strongly admire the performances on the triple set containing eight chamber scores. I have become strongly attached to and have known these performances since their release in the 1970s on Lyrita LPs: SRCS 59, 64 and 98. They have become probably my personal favourite collection of Ireland’s chamber music. The list of performers includes Yfrah Neaman (violin), Julian Lloyd Webber (cello) and Eric Parkin (piano). Compared to the rival version they take the three trios at substantially slower speeds, with the Phantasie Trio taking longer than the designed twelve minutes. This is not too much of a problem as it seems that Ireland would himself often take his scores slower than many of his interpreters. The disc also includes the early Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet on Lyrita (see review) as well as the Cello Sonata, Fantasy Sonata and the two Violin Sonatas.

The Holywell Ensemble recorded the three Piano Trios together with the Sextet in Abingdon, Oxfordshire in 1997. There is some fine playing here and the recorded sound is of a decent standard on the ASV label CD DCA 1016.

Another disc of Ireland chamber music worth investigating is on the Sanctuary label. It is part of their ASV Gold series but it contains only the Piano Trio No. 2. This is a collection on a single disc that also contains the Violin Sonata No.1, Cello Sonata and The Holy Boy. Daniel Hope (violin), Julian Lloyd Webber (cello) and John McCabe (piano) are the performers in these splendid recordings. They were made at various times between 1987-2003 on Sanctuary (see review).

I have gained considerable pleasure from the reissued historic mono recordings from 1938 of the Phantasie Trio in A minor played by Frederick Grinke (violin), Florence Hooton (cello) and Kenneth Taylor (piano). This recording has been digitally re-mastered from the original 78 rpm Decca records and stands up remarkably well for its seventy year age. The coupling contains historic recordings from 1930 and 1945 of Ireland’s two Violin Sonatas with Ireland at the piano. It is on Dutton Historic Epoch CDLX 7103 coupled with The Holy Boy.

Returning to the present Naxos disc: this assured playing makes a strong and impressively communicative case for Ireland’s music. What’s more it is very naturally recorded with a splendid balance. Bruce Phillips provides top-drawer booklet notes. I do wish Naxos would cease using stock photographs as their front cover artwork - it certainly cannot help sales. This was a pleasure to review and will enhance any record collection.

Michael Cookson

see also Review by John France




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