John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Piano Music of John Ireland - Volume 2
Sarnia – An Island Sequence (Le Catioroc; In a May Morning; Song of the Springtides) (1939-40) [21:45]
Sea Idyll (1900) [14:51]
Two Pieces from A Downland Suite (Elegy [3:42] and Menuet) (1932) [3:50]
Greenways: Three Lyric Pieces (The Cherry Trees; Cypress; The Palm and May) (1938) [9:09]
The Darkened Valley (1921) [4:03]
Two Pieces (For Remembrance, Amberley Wild Brooks) (1921) [4:03 + 4:10]
Vilanella (early 1900s for organ, arranged for piano 1912 [3:18]
Love is a Sickness (freely transcribed by Robert Helps, 1995) [3:25]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. January 2008, CBSO Centre, Birmingham

I reviewed the first volume of Mark Bebbington’s projected four disc Ireland survey with some enthusiasm whilst also pointing out the alternative practitioners in the field, both new and restored to the catalogues.

Volume 2 is no less engaging. In Sarnia he finds the brooding gravity of Le Catioroc as well as the spew catch in the rhythm in its central section. He certainly has his own ideas regarding the final panel, Song of the Springtides, which he takes at a very deliberate tempo; I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it taken quite this slowly. Once again in Sea Idyll he sounds a great deal less incisive than say, Alan Rowlands, whose pioneering Lyrita box I cited in the review above. Bebbington has a very different take on things, far more measured, less rhythmically incisive, but he does generate a feeling of ‘power in reserve’ in the second movement. Here we have a more fulsome romanticism as opposed to Rowlands’ altogether brisker, brighter trajectory.

I like the suggestive chording he evokes in The Cypress, the second of Greenways. The waft and sway of the writing is well conveyed, and the sense of colour too. Tempi are more conventional here – Eric Parkin (also on Lyrita) and Rowlands are similarly in agreement. He plays The Darkening Valley well. It’s an evocative piece, and Bebbington allows it time to breathe and ripen. It’s his way with the composer’s music, to seek out that extra measure of time, to bring a sense of ‘Ireland chording’ to these works – to allow a just and resonant sense of weight and texture. Sometimes I have to say this comes at the cost of retardation of the rhythm. Even when Ireland estimated optimum timings, as he did in the case of the A minor Violin Sonata, his own performance shows he was out, and played works rather faster than he anticipated he would.

That seems to me the case with two of the most famous pieces here; For Remembrance and Amberley Wild Brooks. He doesn’t quite convey the latter’s essence in my view though there is certainly consistency in his view. This is the first recording of Villanella – a charming salon effusion. It’s not the first recording of Robert Helps’s free transcription of Love is a Sickness, which is very touchingly done. But it is the first recording of this arrangement of Two Pieces from A Downland Suite; they were arranged for piano in 1932 and carry a deal of charm.

If you prefer a measured, but still romantic view of Ireland this disc has sizeable virtues. My own preference is for slightly tauter tempi and tempo relations in a number of these pieces but the logic with which Bebbington states his case is formidable and his technical and colouristic accomplishment, and those of the recording, are considerable.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by John France