John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor (1908-1909 rev.1917) [30:26]
Violin Sonata No.2 in A minor (1915-1917) [27:58]
Cello Sonata in G minor (1923) [20:40]
Lucy Gould (violin); Alice Neary (cello); Benjamin Frith (piano)
rec. Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK, 19-21 October 2009. DDD
NAXOS 8.572497 [79:05]

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 the Chandos issue with Lydia Mordkovitch, Karine Georgian and Ian Brown. However this new release will be a worthy successor to these previous editions.

John France

A strong sense of place.