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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Mai-Dun (1921) [11:04]
The Forgotten Rite (1913-1918) [7:09]
Satyricon Overture (1944-1946) [8:45]
The Overlanders Suite (arr. Sir Charles Mackerras) (1946-1947) [19:27]
A London Overture (1936) [12:14]
Epic March (1942) [8:18]
The Hallé Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. 24-25 March 2007, BBC Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester
HALLÉ CDHLL 7523[67:41]

Sound samples interpolated in the review

Experience Classicsonline

I was reading the sleeve-notes of this CD on a train from the North Country down to 'The Smoke'. A lady opposite was busy typing away on her laptop. However, I could see that something had caught her eye. I knew that it was not me, so it had to be the CD box! I showed it to her and asked if she knew the music of John Ireland. She shook her head and said, “Never heard of him, but I think the Hallé Orchestra are the best in the world”. Although the conversation ended as quickly as it started, it certainly gave me food for thought.

The advertising blurb on the CD cover quotes a reviewer in The Times. It states quite categorically, “I'd rather listen to the Hallé play English music than any other orchestra in the world.”

So, here are two resounding shouts for the great Manchester-based band. And if I am honest I would have to agree that this present performance of John Ireland's orchestral music is truly superb. I would add my voice to the above comments - with one caveat. I have always felt that the Hallé could programme just a little bit more British music. I have looked at their programmes back over the last hundred years or so (see Michael Kennedy's history of the orchestra) and although they do have a fair few performances of British Music - both premieres and subsequent outings- there is a definite bias towards the mainstream European tradition (including Sibelius). More pertinently, perhaps, there is a distinct lack of music by Manchester-based composers - both alive and dead. It is sad that it took the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to present the orchestral music of John Foulds to the world. However, we must not forget that John Ireland was born in Bowden, Cheshire. This is in the catchment area of the Hallé and the Bridgewater Hall. So they are making amends!

The present CD is a veritable feast of Ireland's orchestral music. In fact it makes an excellent introduction to his music. There are six works on this disc which represent different facets and interests of the composer's achievement.

Perhaps the most important works are those associated with location and history - Mai-Dun and The Forgotten Rite. Much of his music was infused with evocations of place and the people who had lived there. This was especially the case when those places had connections with the prehistoric and had 'mystical aspects' associated with their beliefs and rituals. He had a heightened sense of 'awareness of place': a kind of sixth-sense.

Of all the orchestral works of John Ireland, Mai-Dun (1921) is the one that I am least familiar with. There is no excuse for this: it has been in my record collection for thirty-odd years. But somehow it did not appeal to me as much as The Forgotten Rite. Perhaps the reason for this is that it less of an impressionistic work and more of like programme music: there is a definite tale to tell here. Mai-Dun was Thomas Hardy's title for the great fortifications at Maiden Castle near Dorchester. Julian Herbage has reminded listeners that Ireland was a great fan of Hardy: he sympathised with the author's belief in “the harshly indifferent force that governed mankind”.

The resulting piece of music is really an aural description of the 'strenuous life and struggles' of the folk living in or around the castle. The opening and closing music is quite obviously meant to depict war-like strife: it is like little else that Ireland wrote. sample: opening. It pushes closer to Stravinsky than it has been given credit for. Yet the middle section is totally romantic in its ethos. Prehistoric men and women had their affairs of the heart too!

However, I would rather listen to this music as if it were an abstract work. I do try to forget about prehistoric battles and just allow the music to weave its spell. John Ireland, in his own way, had a “strenuous life and struggles” - at least emotionally.  

Prelude: The Forgotten Rite is my favourite piece of Ireland orchestral music. In fact it is really a tone-poem rather than just a 'prelude'. The piece was written the year before the start of the Great War but was not actually performed until 1917. It is the received opinion that the background to this piece is the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands. Ireland wrote in a programme note for the premiere that this work “evoked the mystical aspects' and 'occult forces' of nature. Yet it has nothing like the savagery of The Rite of Spring or the sheer eroticism of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. In many ways, Ireland is able to convey his sense of time and place using the palette of romantic music as well as the techniques of impressionism. Listen for the wonderful flute and oboe solos and the haunting evocation of the horns of Elfland. sample: opening

The second group of pieces are the two fine overtures- one celebrating the sights and sounds of London and the other being an appeal to the “carefree adventures and escapades of three Roman youths” as presented in the great poem, Satyricon by Petronius. The Satyricon Overture began life as a wedding present for the critic Julian Herbage and his wife Anna. John Ireland was at that time enthusiastic about the 'recital of lecherous happenings' that the Roman author had described. Perhaps he was sympathetic to the boy Giton? However two things need to be said. Firstly this is joyous and capricious music that is full of life and celebrations. It is not in any way 'confessional' music. sample: opening And secondly, the exploits alluded to by the composer are tame fare when compared to the later film by Fellini! Lookout for the clarinet solo, which is a kind of leitmotif for Giton. It was the composer's final orchestral score and was first performed by Sir Henry Wood at a Promenade concert in 18 August 1946.

I love the London Overture (1936). For me it has the same ability to create an 'impression' that Whistler's paintings of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes does. The work was based on an earlier Comedy Overture which had been written for the 1934 National Brass Band Competition at Crystal Palace. The oft-quoted 'onomatopoeic' theme of “Dilly - Piccadilly” does nothing to lessen the impact of this work. sample: opening Perhaps my favourite part of this piece is the delicious 'nocturne' section. It is surely evocative of the Thames by night or a late evening stroll with one's lover in a London Square. extract Yet, it was actually a lament for a personal friend of the composer. But all sadness is banished and the work ends positively.

I am not the first person to mention this, but this Overture can surely be seen as a pendant to the great London Pieces for piano.

The third facet presented in this recording is the only essay that Ireland made into film music. The Overlanders was made just after the end of the war in 1946. It was an Ealing Studios production which starred Chips Rafferty and was produced by Sir Michael Balcon. The story is set in the Northern Territories of Australia in 1942. At that time the Japanese were poised to invade Australia: people were evacuating and were burning everything in a 'scorched earth policy. There were over one million herd of cattle grazing there and they would have fallen into the hands of the enemy. So, rather than slaughter and burn them, the film tells of the drover who was inspired to 'overland' them some 1600 miles to a safe place. It is good, if not great, music that surely deserves to be better known. It has been worked up into a fine suite by Sir Charles Mackerras. In some way it sounds like a mini-symphony!  Stampede:extract
And lastly there is the rather unusual piece - the Epic March. Now it is fair to say that Ireland does not have a reputation for writing so called 'ceremonial' music: he is no Walton, Elgar or Bliss. This is no tub-thumping piece of pomp and circumstance. extract The secret of this work's mood is in the heading to the score. Here Ireland defines the word 'epic' as 'concerning some heroic action or series of actions and events of deep and lasting significance in the history of a nation or the race'. One does not need to be a historian to realise that 1942, when the work was composed, was a 'sticky' time for the Allies. There was no certainty at that the war would end in victory. In fact, things were especially serious in the Far East. Ireland's March was a piece of its time. As Harold Rutland said, “The music suggests the tramp of armies and something of the 'faith and fire' within the men who marched away.” It is a fine example of its genre out-with the list of 'usual suspects'. I put it alongside the Coronation March by Frank Bridge and Cedric Thorpe Davie's Royal Mile March.

This is a great CD that every Ireland enthusiast will insist on having. The main competition for this music is the Boult recordings on Lyrita and the Hickox edition on Chandos. All these recordings are essential and I would not be without them. I was introduced to Ireland's orchestral music through the Lyrita LPs so I naturally have a soft spot for them. However, John Wilson and the Hallé have excelled themselves and produced a landmark disc that presents this great music with enthusiasm, passion and understanding.

John France 

Comparative reviews
Ireland Mai-Dun Boult Lyrita
Ireland Mai-Dun Barbirolli Dutton
Ireland Mai-Dun Thomson Chandos


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