John Ireland’s Piano Trios are a critical part of his repertoire.
Certainly they form an ideal way to explore his chamber music.
And for once, I would suggest that the listener approaches these
three works in the order they written.
Phantasie Trio in A minor was one of many works composed
for the illustrious Cobbett Music Competitions announced in
1907. The twenty-eight year old composer submitted this present
piece alongside some 37 other entrants. It is probably reasonably
well-known that the winner of that competition was Frank Bridge. However, Ireland scored a joint second
with the now largely forgotten James Friskin. The winning pieces
were performed at the Aeolian Hall on January 1909.
Musical Times reports that this work was characterised by “extreme
brilliancy and strenuousness and is rich in musicianship”. It
is a sentiment with which even a cursory hearing will reveal.
The same review notes that Ireland was called to the platform
twice –and considering that Brahms Trio in B was also performed
the writer felt that it was a “triumph for British chamber music”.
Structurally, the work mirrors sonata form, but is written in
one continuous movement with the four parts reflecting the exposition,
the development, the recapitulation and a coda.
great critic Edwin Evans felt that the Phantasie Trio marked
the end of Ireland’s early compositional
period and the starting point of a new direction. He conceded
that there was a lot of characteristic ‘Ireland’ writing here. He noted
that the mood of the work is “classical throughout, and [that]
unity is secured not so much by derivation of the thematic material...as
an affinity of themes which maintain their independence”. He
concludes by suggesting that the “use of themes which are homogonous
without being positively related often produces a better result,
and the cohesion of this attractive trio is not the least of
its many qualities”.
Trio is a work that certainly deserved its prize and makes,
in spite of Evans’s prose, an approachable introduction to John
Ireland’s chamber music.
Piano Trio No.2 is in complete contrast to the Phantasie. For
one thing this work was composed in 1917, a time when the full
horrors of the Great War were manifest. Both this work and
the slightly earlier Second Violin Sonata are usually regarded
as expressing the composer’s feelings about the tragedy and
the loss of the Great War. Yet although the composer allegedly
told the cellist Florence Hooton that the ‘allegro guisto’ section
“evoked the boys going over the top’ this is not a ‘Battle of the Trafalgar’ type of musical confection. It is
perhaps more to do with Ireland trying to cling to “the beauty that remained on the
earth amidst the carnage and inhumanity of the battle.” In
spite of alleged warlike allusions there is much in this Trio
that has a ‘haunting beauty’ and interestingly the work concludes
on an optimistic note bearing in mind the date of its composition.
sleeve-notes quote Fiona Richards in her book The Music of
John Ireland (Ashgate 2000) “This is a work of mixed emotions,
contrasting passages of stark textures and caustic harmonies
with effusive moments and grim marches. The structure of the
work is a succession of episodes exploring different mood, all
of which are melodic metamorphoses of the first eighteen bars
of the piece”. It is a wise and appropriate summary of what
is not an easy work to come to terms with.
final Trio is my personal favourite. I have long felt that
this work describes a landscape – not in any pictorial manner,
but quite simply manages to capture the mood of a day’s exploration
on the Chanctonbury Ring and the South Downs. It is to do with the
composer’s or the listener’s response to that landscape. But
this is also more about mere picture painting. It is about Ireland’s response to the genre of chamber music, his
personal stylistic development and manages to complement both
the mature composer and the youthful enthusiasm of his earlier
scores. It is perhaps no surprise that he dedicated the work
to William Walton. I have noted elsewhere that although Walton
is the dedicatee, there are quite a few nods to Vaughan Williams
in these pages. This is perhaps most obvious in the scherzo
where there even appear to be allusion to a kind of folksong.
Perhaps the highlight of the work is the romantically overblown
Trio was composed in 1938 and does not really respond to the international
situation that was already engulfing Europe. The score incorporates a deal of material salvaged
from the withdrawn Clarinet
Trio. That work has been recently recovered and realised by
Stephen Fox. It was released on Naxos 8.570550. It is important
to realise that this earlier score was completely reworked and
expanded: it was not just an arrangement. The Trio in E is written
in four movements, which on the one had are contrasting, but on
the other are thematically related to the opening ‘allegro moderato’.
would be very easy to ignore the four salon pieces which have
been included as makeweights for this CD. Somehow Naxos were some 12 minutes shy of a full hour and decided
to allow these charming woks to appear alongside the main event.
Oh! that they had chosen to present the James Friskin Phantasie
in A minor which came second equal in the 1907 Cobbett completion
– assuming that the score and parts still exist.
these miniatures are certainly worth reviving occasionally.
As the sleeve notes suggest, the first two of these, the Cavatina
(1902) and the Berceuse (1904), “show that Ireland had a gift for melody
in the style of say Elgar’s Salut d’amour or Chanson
Bagatelle is a piece that I have not heard before. It was composed
in 1911 for Marjorie Haywood who was soloist in the composer’s
substantial First Violin Sonata. All three of these works could
be described as charming: none of them are essential.
are on different territory with the final piece – The Holy
Boy. This work, written in 1913, was originally the third
movement of the Four Preludes for piano which were not published
until 1917. This work has been ‘dished up’ in a number of different
arrangements including for string orchestra, organ, four part
choir and cello and piano. Lately it has appeared on a Naxos
CD in a version for clarinet and piano. The sleeve notes suggest
that the inspiration for this piece may have been the Georgian
poet Harold Munro’s Children of Love, which begins with the
lies “The holy boy/ went from his mother out in the cool of
the day” and evokes a meeting between Jesus and Eros. Perhaps
a more prosaic suggestion is that the inspiration for this work
was a certain Bobby Glassby, a chorister at St Luke’s Church
in Chelsea. It is possible that it was both.
enjoyed the playing by the Gould Piano Trio and felt that they
had truly entered into the spirit of the music. They apply themselves
with equal attention to the heavier Trios as well as the lighter
programme notes are good and introduce these works well. There
is so much that could be said about the Trios in particular,
that it is quite a work of art to provide sufficient information
in a manageable format.
the competing versions are those on Lyrita, Chandos and ASV.
What is the preferred version? Well, to paraphrase my late father
– No one makes, and tries to sell, a bad version of the Ireland
Trios.” Each of these releases is a great recording in their
own right. I was ‘brought up’ on the Lyrita recording and have
a certain bias towards that one. However, a comparative study
notwithstanding, I suggest that this present release is a great
investment. As I often say, all Ireland enthusiasts will insist
on adding this CD to their collection.