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, 3 March 2007, 12 March 2011; Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, 18-19 February 2011
*World premiere recordings

NAXOS 8.572598 [77:00]

In this, their 25th year, Naxos show no sign of reducing the steady flow of new Ė and often premiere Ė recordings. Their eclecticism is matched only by their sense of adventure. It would be remarkable if this process revealed wheat every time, but judging by the discs that have passed through my in-tray in the past five years thereís not been nearly as much chaff as one might expect from such an ambitious release programme. As for their collaboration with the RLPO Ė Vasily Petrenkoís Shostakovich cycle Ė itís produced a rich harvest indeed.
Conductor John Wilson is certainly familiar, but somehow pianist John Lenehan has eluded me thus far. As for the music, the concerto has already been recorded by the likes of Eric Parkin (Chandos) and Kathryn Stott (Dutton), but in true Naxos style Indian Summer and Pastoral are world premiere recordings. Listening to Lenehanís reading of the concerto Ė billed as a love song to the composerís young protťgť, Helen Perkin Ė itís not difficult so see why itís one of Irelandís most enduring works. Thereís no mistaking the ardour of that opening tune, or the heartís ease of the pianoís first entry. But then this music is a wellspring of delights, Lenehanís bright, bubbly playing matched by that of the orchestra, the latter clearly benefiting from Petrenkoís continuing tutelage.
Sonically, this is one of Naxosí better efforts, certainly a far cry from the dreadful Busoni concerto I reviewed earlier. Only in the more ebullient passagework of the In tempo moderato does the piano sound a little glassy, the tuttis equally so. This is an issue with the orchestral items recorded in Liverpoolís Philharmonic Hall; the solo pieces, recorded at Champs Hill, sound much more natural. Still, that matters less when the music sparkles so. The Lento espressivo has moments of introspection that, far from being self-absorbed, have a liberating charm thatís hard to resist. The balance between piano and orchestra is generally fine, crisp ensemble and Lenehanís highly articulate pianism disguising the fact that Irelandís textures are inclined to clot.
Itís not the tidiest of concertos Ė the percussive intrusions in the second movement are a tad incongruous Ė but the composerís at his tunesome best in the Allegretto giocoso. Thereís a marvellous, crystalline quality to the piano part, somewhat overshadowed by the orchestraís bloated tread. That said, it all ends in the sunniest of outbursts. An engaging performance of an endearing work, in which sheer enthusiasm triumphs over limited expressive range and some structural awkwardness.
As for the Arcadian intimations of Legend for piano and orchestra, they soon give way to tough, angular writing thatís unsettling. Lenehanís more muscular delivery is very well caught by the Naxos engineers, as is the menacing percussion. I suppose itís an exercise in mood, or evocation, which means thereís a free-flowing, rhapsodic feel to the music. And although the orchestra sounds a little unfocused in the tuttis this is still an atmospheric piece, and a good companion for the much earlier Rhapsody in F sharp minor that follows.
In many ways, the Rhapsody is the most persuasive and memorable item on this disc; indeed, it gives Lenehan the chance to flex expressive muscles only hinted at thus far. Thereís an astonishing reach and scale to his playing, the listener swept along by the glittering torrent; moreover, thereís a focus and intensity to Irelandís writing here thatís most impressive. A fine piece, superbly played and very well recorded in the sympathetic surroundings of the Music Room at Champs Hill. Ditto the even earlier Pastoral, whose soft edges belie the strength and formality of its content. Yet another pleasing example of Lenehanís intuitive, unforced playing style.
And like most Indian summers Irelandís balmy little piece is all too short, the three-movement Sea Idyll infused with a meandering lyricism thatís utterly enchanting. And Naxos have done a good job here; the pianoís range and colour are well preserved, the sound clear and clean. As if this werenít talent enough, Lenehan reveals a flair for rhythm in the Three Dances; the Gypsy Dance has plenty of flicker and flash, the Country Dance reassuring in its plainness, Lenehan adroit in the turn-on-a-sixpence compactness of the Reapersí Dance.
This is a an excellent bargain, though I have some reservations about the concerto and Legend, which may be better served elsewhere. Absolutely no such qualms about the solo pieces, which are as good as youíre likely to find anywhere. As for John Lenehan, I canít imagine how Iíve missed a pianist of such talent, and I look forward to hearing more from him. As ever, the liner-notes are well written, and at budget price this CD is a good introduction to Irelandís changing musical landscapes.
Dan Morgan

A good introduction to Irelandís changing musical landscapes.

see also reviews by John France and Rob Barnett