John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Piano Concerto in E flat (1930) [24:50]
Legend for piano and orchestra (1933) [13:14]
First Rhapsody (1906) [12:07]
Pastoral (1896) [4:45]
Indian Summer (1932) [2:17]
A Sea Idyll (1900) [12:29]
Three Dances (1913) [7:18]
John Lenehan (piano)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. Music Room Champs Hill, West Sussex, England, 3 March 2007 (Sea Idyll), 12 March 2011 (Rhapsody, Pastoral, Indian Summer, Three Dances), Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, England, 18-19 February 2011 (Concerto; Legend). DDD
world premiere recordings (Pastoral, Indian Summer)
NAXOS 8.572598 [77:00]

It is almost impossible to believe that there are some five cycles of the complete piano music of John Ireland currently available: Rowlands on Lyrita (REAM 3112), Parkin on Lyrita and Chandos, Bebbington on Somm and Lenehan on Naxos. In addition to this, there are some eight CDs featuring the Piano Concerto and five of the Legend. This compares exceptionally well with other European composers. For example, Granados has only two ‘complete’ cycles (Naxos and Nimbus) as does Albeniz (Naxos and BIS) and Turina has one only (Naxos).

The present CD tidies up a number of loose-ends within the John Lenehan cycle. The earlier piano solo volumes are 8.553700, 8.553889 and 8.570461. Not only are the two major concerted works given excellent performances, but he has included good readings of some of the lesser-known parts of the Ireland canon.

Three things have to be borne in mind whilst listening to John Ireland’s Piano Concerto in E flat. Firstly, it is his only concerto and is one his longest pieces. Secondly, it is usually regarded as being one of the finest piano concertos written by an Englishman, although no doubt enthusiasts of Alan Rawsthorne, Cyril Scott and Hamilton Harty (for example) would beg to differ. The Ireland concerto nods to Prokofiev, Ravel and even George Gershwin in its use of jazzy rhythms; however in spite of these influences it is an original work that reflects the composer’s individual style and technique. Thirdly, it is important to recall the work was in fact a love-letter to Helen Perkin. Perkin (1909-1996) was the composer’s pupil and protégé whom he coached in the performance of this concerto. The work was played to great acclaim at the Queen’s Hall on 2 October 1930. However any romantic interest that Ireland may have imagined was not reciprocated. Perkin married George Mountford Adie, who was a pupil of the esoteric philosopher George Gurdjieff. Subsequently the composer removed the dedication to her.

I believe that the clue to understanding and enjoying this work is to see the composer attempting to balance the ‘Brahmsian’ sound-world of his Royal College of Music days with the more ‘motor-driven’ mood of the post-war years. As a fifty-year-old man he is endeavouring to write music that would appeal to the nineteen-year old Perkin. The concerto reflects this vitality yet never loses the essential mood of his earlier achievements. The listener’s view of the work will depend on how well they feel the composer has achieved this synthesis.

I believe that John Lehenan manages to make this equilibrium between the Ireland of the ‘heart’ and of the ‘head.’ It is well-played, often moving and always maintains interest.

The Legend is one of the few pieces written by John Ireland that I struggle with. Its mood and language is about as far away from Chelsea Reach or ‘Sea Fever’ as I could imagine. In fact, I find that this is a very scary and unsettling work – something akin to reading a novel by Arthur Machen - to whom the work was dedicated. The Legend had originally been intended as a second piano concerto aiming to continue the success of his first. However, the project never came to fruition. He had scaled back the scope of this ‘concerto ‘and had given it the tentative title of Queen Fridias, Prelude for orchestra and piano. The present title was finally decided upon.

The Legend almost defies analysis; however, it is fair to say that it does not present the pianist as a ‘hero’: it is more of a concertante piece where a mood of partnership is created between the soloist and the orchestra.

The story of Ireland’s picnic on the South Downs near Harrow Hill is well-known. His lunch was interrupted by a vision of children singing and dancing. At first the composer imagined that they were ‘real’ but their ancient apparel made him do a double-take. When he looked again they had vanished. Whatever the scientific or numinous basis of this event was will never be established, however, he described the occurrence to Arthur Machen, who retorted, ‘Oh you’ve seen them too.’

The music is at one and the same time sinister, impressionistic and mystical. The art of interpreting this work is to ensure that all these emotions are delineated clearly. John Lenehan and the orchestra create the film-score-like mood of fear, dread and even horror, but also manage to present the passages alluding to the landscape in a sympathetic manner. Most importantly, I believe, the dance passages have a sense of loss of innocence about them that tie into Machen’s view that there were the children who had been massacred down through the ages –The White Order of the Innocents.

In 2010 Mark Bebbington recorded the first performance of the First Rhapsody in F sharp minor. This dates from 1906. There has been some critical discussion suggesting that an ‘innocent ear’ would never really attribute this work to John Ireland. This is a big, romantic, often over-blown work that nods to Liszt and Rachmaninov. It would not be possible to draw a trajectory from this Rhapsody to the Piano Sonata (1918-1920) or Sarnia (1940-41). However in some of the quieter passages there are occasional intimations of his mature style. Yet this is great music that is worthy of the composer and it offers much of interest and beauty. It is a demanding piece that is both virtuosic and complex. It is strikingly played by John Lenehan and reflects a composer wearing his heart on his sleeve.

One of the highlights of this CD is the two world premiere recordings. However, it could be argued that as individual concert works they do not measure up to the composer’s finer offerings. The Pastoral was completed whilst the composer was staying at Pontwgan in North Wales during 1896. I know this area of the Conwy Valley very well. As a teenager (early 1970s) I enjoyed exploring the nearby Caerhun churchyard and the remains of the Roman fort. The adjacent village of Rowen, which was used in the 1970s TV series ‘A Family at War’ has been a family haunt for more than forty years. The Pastoral is a work that musically portrays this landscape extremely well. It contrasts the darker, introverted mood of the hills with smiling fields in the valley on a hot summer’s day. Whether this area was in fact the inspiration for this work, or whether it was the Home Counties matters little: it is a fine example of ‘pastoral’ music and is an accomplished piece for a seventeen year old student.

The other première is Indian Summer. Once again this is a meditation on a landscape, which almost certainly lies well to the south of Wales. It was composed in 1932 and was duly published by the Danish firm of Wilhelm Hansen in Pro-Musica. Pro-Musica was a journal which published new works of unknown as well as established composers. The piece was later revised and given the title of ‘The Cherry Tree’ in Greenways. It is good to have an earlier recension of this work: in many ways this is more dreamlike and sultry than the later piece.

I am delighted that John Lenehan has chosen to join Mark Bebbington with a complete performance of Sea Idyll (1899). Other versions of this piece such as Eric Parkin on Chandos and Desmond Wright on EMI Classics have only given the first movement, as this was the only part of the work that was included in the landmark Stainer & Bell Collected Piano Music: the second and third sections remain in manuscript.

The Sea Idyll is not really a descriptive sea-picture unlike Greville Cooke’s Cormorant Crag. The score is prefaced by a quotation from Emerson’s essay ‘On Friendship’: '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.' I guess that this student piece written when Ireland was 21 years old is more a meditation on unrequited love than an attempt as creating a ‘seascape’. This music uses the ocean as a backdrop for the expression of emotions: most likely a broken heart.

John Ireland played the work at a Royal Academy of Music concert in March 1900. It was performed by Adela Verne the following year. Apparently, it was well received at that time, but was later withdrawn by the composer. John Lenehan gives a good account of this powerful work. Brahms may be the inspiration, but already the unusual modulations suggest that the composer’s own style is beginning to assert itself.

I have always liked the Three Dances dating from 1913: one of the reasons being that I can play them reasonably well. They are usually regarded as being teaching pieces. Stewart R. Craggs notes that these numbers were originally known as Three Rustic Dances and were written as educational music. The three are ‘Gypsy Dance’, ‘Country Dance’ and ‘Reapers Dance’. The best is the middle number with its lilting melody and delightful phrases. As far as I am aware only Daniel Adni and Mark Bebbington have so far chosen to record these pieces. In spite of their humble origin, Lenehan plays them with care and charm. They nod more to Schumann than to the music that Ireland was composing at that time, such as the song-cycle Marigold and The Forgotten Rite. However, they are fun and may well encourage younger players to approach Ireland’s music.

I enjoyed this CD very much indeed and so I think will all enthusiasts of John Ireland’s music. I, like many people, often fall into the trap of falling back on the recordings that I was ‘brought up’ on when I want to hear Ireland’s music – in this case Colin Horsley’s account of the Piano Concerto and Erik Parkin’s cycle on Lyrita. However, I feel that it is good to move beyond the comfort zone from time to time. I certainly listen to Mark Bebbington’s recordings more often nowadays. John Lenehan gives an excellent and sympathetic account of all the works presented here and I certainly will listen to this disc again. The ‘new’ pieces are also worthwhile and add extra value to this fine CD.

John France

I enjoyed this CD very much indeed.