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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Piano Music by John Ireland - Volume 2
Sarnia (1941): (Le Catioroc [7:10]; In a May morning [6:56]; Song of the Springtides [7:40]); Sea Idyll (1900) [14:51]; Two Pieces from a Downland Suite (1932) (Elegy [3:42]; Menuet [3:50]); Greenways: Three Lyric Pieces (1938) (The Cherry Tree [2:27] Cypress [3:39] The Palm and May [3:08]); The Darkened Valley (1922) [4:03];
Two Pieces (1921) (For Remembrance [4:03] Amberley Wild Brooks [3:18]); Villanella (1900s arr. for piano by composer, 1912) [3:18]; Love is a Sickness (1921, freely transc. Robert Helps, 1995) [3:25]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. CBSO Centre, Birmingham 18-19 January 2008
SOMM SOMMCD 088 [72:28]
Experience Classicsonline

First things first … It is great to hear the second volume of the Somm cycle of piano music by John Ireland: there can never be too many recordings of these great works. Add to that the quality of the playing and sound on the present disc and it becomes clear that this is a must-buy for all enthusiasts of British piano music.

However, one of most interesting things about this CD is the inclusion of a number of rarities. Although these are not crucial parts of the Ireland canon, they are nevertheless valuable to have on disc. I want to spend the greater part of this review looking at these pieces.

Notwithstanding this, there is a fine selection of important works on this release that are the main reasons for purchasing this CD. 
Sarnia: An Island Sequence must be one of Ireland's most vital works and it was his last major composition for the piano. It is, to quote the sleeve-notes, 'the 60-year-old composer's evocation of, and tribute to, an island where he had achieved possibly the greatest happiness and contentedness in a life not overflowing with personal fulfilment and 'job satisfaction.''

Mark Bebbington fulfils the role as an ideal interpreter of these three complex pieces. It is necessary to balance the mystical, if not downright pagan influences in this music, with a delicate portrayal of the landscape at its shining best. Perhaps this is most essential in the Song of Springtides where the pianist must ensure that he, to quote the composer's letter to Clifford Curzon, 'displays charm, subtlety, passion, and above all beauty of a high alluring order.'

Greenways: Three Lyric Pieces, which was written in 1932, has always been a favourite work of mine, perhaps because of the The Cherry Tree's association with Housman's great poem Loveliest of Trees. This also happened to be one of John Ireland's favourite poems. Rarely can a meditation on the transience of life have been presented in such concise, sad and fundamentally beautiful words. This is replicated to a large extent in the music. The second piece Cypress is truly gloomy and well reflects Shakespeare's words, 'Come away, come away, death / And in sad cypress let me be laid'. However the final movement makes up for much of the preceding sadness 'The Palm and May/Make country houses gay'. Yet even here one suspects a little touch of melancholy. The work was dedicated to Harriet Cohen.

The Darkened Valley is a piece for which I have a soft spot. This may well be because it is just about in my gift to play. Perhaps I benefited by the key change that was made by the publishers - it used to be in A flat minor which I seem to recall is seven flats! It was republished in G minor - two flats. The piece is prefaced by a quotation from William Blake: 'Walking along the darkened valley/With silent melancholy'. It is a beautiful and haunting piece that can be totally ruined by well-meaning amateurs like me. Fortunately, Bebbington gives a detailed and nuanced performance.

I have always had a sneaking impression that there is a popular song alluded to in For Remembrance. However, I understand that A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square was actually a wartime song written in 1940. Perhaps Manning Sherwin and Jack Strachey knew this piano piece? It is actually fairly blatant! Yet For Remembrance is not sentimental music - it is elegiac. This is a complex piece that is truly concentrated and quite simply gorgeous.

The last of the major works on the CD is Amberley Wild Brooks. This is one of the great impressionistic works in the British piano repertoire. Yet I believe that for all the nature-music here it is not a pastoral or bucolic piece. It is the running streams of the Sussex landscape seen through the eyes of someone who is actually a city person. Fiona Richard has pointed out that there are a number of aspects of John Ireland's compositional character: these include paganism, the country, the city, love, war and Anglo-Catholicism. Certainly the first three are well represented here. It is beautifully played by Mark Bebbington.

I am delighted that Bebbington has chosen to record the complete Sea Idyll. It would have been easy to have joined Eric Parkin on Chandos and Desmond Wright on EMI and given only the first movement of this piece. Unfortunately, the second and third movements were not included in the Stainer & Bell Collected Piano Works, and remain in manuscript.

Ireland wrote a quotation from Emerson on the score: 'If he [your companion] is unequal, he will presently pass away; but thou no longer a mate for frogs and worms, dost soar and burn with the gods of the empyrean.' It is taken from the essay On Friendship and certainly partly refers to unrequited love. It is not really a descriptive 'sea piece' like Debussy's La Mer: it is more of an attempt at using the ocean as a background for the expression of thoughts and emotions. Perhaps in the same way as RVW does in his Sea Symphony
The work was played at the Royal Academy of Music by the composer in March 1900 and was performed a year later by Adela Verne. It won considerable critical acclaim at that time. However, the composer was unsatisfied by the piece and it was withdrawn.  
Although Ireland referred to Sea Idyll as a 'student work' it is clear that the listener is in the presence of a competent composer. Brahms is largely behind much of the formal and harmonic structures of this piece, yet it is fair to suggest that Ireland had already begun to find his own voice. Eric Parkin notes the 'out of the ordinary key changes.'

The Elegy and Minuet from the Downland Suite have a long and complex version history. The original work was composed on 1932 as a test piece for the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain: there were four movements - Prelude, Elegy, Minuet and Round. However the composer 'freely adapted' the Minuet and the Elegy for string orchestra in 1941. Interestingly, the other two movements were arranged for strings by Geoffrey Bush who had been Ireland's pupil. Bush has written that he 'followed the composer's example in re-conceiving the music as a composition for string orchestra rather than making it a literal re-arrangement of the brass band version'. One major difference between the two works was the extended Elegy.

In 1933 the composer appears to have arranged the Elegy and Minuet, as presented in the brass band version, for piano. The resulting piece is quite different to the piano repertoire that Ireland was composing at this time. In fact, the Elegy has all the longing of Elgar and the Minuet is a 'pastoral' piece par excellence.

In 1940 Alec Rowley transcribed the Elegy for organ and in 1985 The Downland Suite was arranged for wind band by R. Steadman-Allen.

It is a worthy, if not vital addition to the list of Ireland's piano pieces.

Villanella is quite definitely a 're-cycled' work. There are five different versions of this short piece - three of which are available on disc. It was originally composed in 1904 for organ. However the composer revised it in 1944 where it formed the third number of a miniature Suite for Organ; the other two being the Intrada and the Menuetto-impromptu. It was composed when Ireland was organist at St Jude's and St Luke's churches in Chelsea. Two orchestral arrangement of this piece were made - one by Leslie Bridgewater in 1941 as part of Two Salon Pieces and the other by Ronald Binge in 1949. The former is available on Dutton Vocalion. However, back in 1912, the work was 'freely transcribed for piano' by the composer, It is this version that is given its first recording here.

Fiona Richards insists that this is a piece of 'light music'. She further suggests that Ireland may have been influenced by Gabriel Fauré's use of the term 'Villanella' as titles for his songs. Lewis Foreman points out that the most famous Villanelle is the first song of Hector Berlioz's cycle Nuits d'Été.

Certainly, the piece has all the hallmarks of wit and rusticity associated with the form - even if it does go beyond the 'salon' in its content. Bebbinton plays this work with conviction and does not allow the Edwardian sentimentality to become overwhelming. It should be enjoyed for what it is and no attempt should be made to see future Ireland stylistic fingerprints in this music.

The last piece on this CD is quite gorgeous. It is a 'free and strict' transcription of Ireland's song Love is a sickness full of woes by the American composer' pianist and teacher Robert Helps (1928-2001). He was a great enthusiast of English 20th century music having an especial admiration for Arnold Bax and John Ireland and he regularly presented these composers to audiences at the University of South Florida at Tampa and on recital tours throughout the States. The story goes that Helps wrote this piece for two of his music students 'who were in the throes of an unhappy love affair'.

The original song was composed by Ireland in 1921 to a text by Samuel Daniel (1562-1619) and explores '...the torment to the mind/A tempest everlasting'. It was the kind of setting that the composer often made - reflecting on 'hidden and frustrated love'. This is a gorgeous little piece, and quite matches the mood of the words and the emotions it was transcribed to assuage.

It is invidious to try to suggest which is the best version of John Ireland's piano works to purchase. I was introduced to him by the Rowlands and Parkin recordings on Lyrita: I still regard these as the high-water mark of Ireland interpretation. Yet again John Lenehan has produced an interesting survey of these works on Naxos and Eric Parkin did a re-run for Chandos. I guess that most enthusiasts of Ireland will have all these CDs in their collection - along with Desmond Wright. However, Mark Bebbington's interpretation is excellent. I enjoyed listening to all these pieces and hearing the younger generation's approach to these masterpieces - and lesser works - by one of Britain's finest composer's for the piano. 

I suggest that you add this to your collection. Lastly, I eagerly await the next volume from SOMM. I am hoping that this will be a true 'complete' cycle of John Irelands piano music, published and otherwise.

John France

And a further perspective from Rob Barnett:- 

I echo John France's appraisal of this disc but would add some background in relation to Mark Bebbington. The first of what will be a four volume edition of Ireland's piano music on Somm was issued last year. The series - paralleling Bebbington and Somm's Bridge series - will include many recording premieres. It is funded by the John Ireland Trust. Each will be recorded at Birmingham Symphony Hall and Bebbington is the first solo artist to record there. Bebbington is spreading his wings beyond the solo piano music of which he has made many discs for Somm.

The Orchestra of the Swan performed the Ireland Piano Concerto at Worthing at the end of March, as Stratford-upon-Avon Civic Hall on 14 April 2009, at Birmingham Town Hall on 15 April 2009 and on 21 June 2009 with the Cheltenham Philharmonic under Duncan Westerman at the Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham.

The Bax Piano Concertino will receive its world premiere at Stratford-upon-Avon Civic Hall on 3 July. Later this year there will be a CD of four British Piano Concertos (Rawsthorne, Ferguson, Finzi and Frederic Austin) with the CBSO and Howard Williams. There will also be a disc of Ireland's Piano Concerto and Legend, coupled with the Bax Concertino for Piano and Orchestra with the Orchestra of the Swan and David Curtis. This will be made in the refurbished Birmingham Town Hall, with David Curtis and the Orchestra of the Swan. The Bax Concertino was left unfinished in 1939 and still incomplete at the time of his death in 1953. Bax authority Graham Parlett has completed the orchestration in magnificent fashion. The result is said to be a significant addition to the Bax catalogue. It has been described as 'a big-boned, full-length, virtuoso piano concerto.' Bebbington's repertoire is wide-ranging and extends beyond the British high-water to include Takemitsu, Julian Anderson, John McCabe, Francis Pott, David Matthews and Elliot Carter.

Rob Barnett 

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