It is probably a sign of getting old, but it does not seem
that long ago since I bought my copy of these three works
on the old Lyrita
vinyl LPs with Yfrah Neaman, André Navarra and Eric Parkin.
However, I had previously heard the A minor Sonata on a SAGA
[520S] recording which dated from 1962: this had been issued
to commemorate the composer’s death. Alongside the Sonata were
performances of the Fantasy-Sonata, Decorations and
The Holy Boy. The performers were Tessa Robbins on the
violin, Thea King playing clarinet and Alan Rowlands was the
pianist. This must be a collectors item now. In this day and
age, enthusiasts of John Ireland’s music are exceptionally lucky
in having some half-dozen recordings of the two violin sonatas
and eight of the cello sonatas currently in the CD catalogue.
It is not the purpose of this review to compare them all, although
that is a task that would be most rewarding.
The First Violin Sonata was composed in 1908-09 and was revised
by the composer in 1917 and again in 1944. It was entered for
the 1909 Cobbett Chamber Music Competition, winning first prize
out of 134 entries. The Sonata is written in three movements
– an allegro, a romance and a ‘very easy-going’ allegro. It
is this last movement that may be seen as causing a stylistic
and emotional imbalance in what is effectively a reserved work.
It is often noted that this sonata is the first piece to betray
intimations of Ireland’s mature style. Whilst this may be the
case, it is also true to say that the work is fairly and squarely
in the classical-romantic paradigm. It is largely sad and introverted
and only really becomes upbeat in the final ‘rondo’ with a light-weight
dance tune that fairly bounces along. However the heart of the
work is the stunningly beautiful second movement ‘romance’.
Interestingly, this makes use of modal scales and harmonies
which were to become a typical John Ireland fingerprint. Whether
the listener would agree with the reviewer in the Pall Mall
journal who states that ‘This Sonata is quite one of the most
important works of its kind heard in recent years...’ is another
matter. However, Mr. Karlyle, the music correspondent of The
Star summed up this work perfectly: ‘Delicacy, lucidity, and
tonal charm, are qualities inherent in the music. Coherence
of ideas is apparent in the three movements, which are cleverly
and definitely contrasted in mood. There is a strong vein of
temperament in every one.’
The Second Violin Sonata occupies a rather unique position in
British music: it is one of the few chamber works to have become
a ‘hit’ with the concert-going public. The first performance
of this work was given in 6 March 1917 in London at the Aeolian
Hall by Albert Sammons and William Murdoch. It seemed to strike
the right chord with a war-weary public and literally became
an overnight success. It was after this concert that Ireland
became a well-known and respected composer. The style of this
music has moved on considerably from the previous violin sonata.
The major change is that the entire sound-world is now what
most listeners would regard as being typically ‘Ireland’. This
is a broadly conceived work that is developed on a large canvass:
it covers a wide variety of moods and emotional expression.
There is a constant interchange of themes that create what Stuart
Scott has described as ‘a kind of romantic ruggedness which
Ireland has made his very own.’
The second movement is predictably the heart of this work. The
music progresses as a kind of ‘death march’ – which would have
not have been missed by the wartime audience. However, there
is a gorgeous tune in the middle of this movement that fills
the hearer with optimism.
The final movement is a profound balance between something less-troubling
than the processional music and a mood of melancholy. There
are rhapsodic explorations and some introspective, even valedictory
moments introduced into the proceedings. Yet, the mood does
lighten towards the end: one feels that the composer has at
least managed to escape for a time from his introverted thoughts.
The Cello Sonata was composed in 1923 and was duly given its
first performance the following year at a concert for the Federation
of Music Clubs. The soloists were Beatrice Harrison and Evlyn
Howard-Jones. Harrison was impressed with this work and took
it to the ISCM Festival in Salzburg. The sonata is, like the
violin sonatas, written in three movements – a ‘moderato e sostenuto’,
a ‘poco largamente’ and a ‘finale, con moto a marcato’. The
work has been well described by Marion Scott as beginning quietly
for cello alone, is cumulative and [ends] very brilliantly!’
Much of the material for this sonata is derived from the opening
bars. The work is a fusion of melody, harmony and counterpoint
which are combined in a manner that produces as ‘completely
amalgamated progression of thought....’ Emotionally the work
is passionate without ever exceeding the bounds of firm self-control.
I have long felt that the second movement is one of the loveliest
things in the literature for cello and piano. There is much
beauty in these pages that creates an idealised world that we
all surely aspire to. Yet this mood is ripped away in the finale.
The opening pizzicato chords on the cello destroy any sense
of the ‘pastoral’ dream. However, there is a flair and brilliance
about this music that, in spite of a few depressed moments,
casts care to the wind.
I have written elsewhere that ‘rightly or wrongly it is hard
to listen to this piece without feeling some strong sense of
place – in this case the landscape around Chanctonbury Hill
and the West Sussex Downs.’ I still hold this view.
I thoroughly enjoyed this CD. For one thing it is appropriate
that Naxos have coupled the three string sonatas on a single
disc: this allows the listener to understand the composer’s
chamber music development from 1908 to 1923 in one convenient
form. It is played with a marked assuredness and considerable
perception by the soloists and establishes a new benchmark for
all subsequent performances. I still hark back to my Lyrita
recordings but now and again give an airing to some of the
other versions of these works that are in my collection – especially
issue with Lydia Mordkovitch, Karine Georgian and Ian Brown.
However this new release will be a worthy successor to these