John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Piano Music - Volume 4
The Towing Path (1918) [3:58]
Three Pastels: A Grecian Lad, The Boy Bishop, Puck’s Birthday (1941) [10:08]
Summer Evening (1919) [4:13]
Soliloquy (1922) [3:30]
Spring Will Not Wait (1926-7) [5:02]
In Those Days: Daydream, Meridian (1895) [9:36]
Merry Andrew (1918) [3:24]
Leaves from a Child’s Sketchbook: By the Mere, In the Meadow, The Hunt’s Up (1918) [3:57]
Meine Seele (1931) [2:02]
Epic March (1942) [9:02]
Pastoral (1896) [4:18]
Month’s Mind (1933) [5:38]
On a Birthday Morning (1922) [3:25]
Columbine (1949/51) [3:57]
Equinox (1922) [2:40]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 3-4 January 2011
SOMM SOMMCD 0115 [74:54]
Over the last few years I’ve reviewed a number of John Ireland’s piano music in editions ranging from Alan Rowlands’ much admired old Lyrita set to individual volumes by John Lenehan on Naxos and Mark Bebbington on Somm, the last of whose volumes in the series is now the subject of this review. It marks the end of an important contribution to the cause of Ireland on disc.
From the outset I’ve noted that Bebbington has struck out on his own. He’s not one for received tradition in this body of work, either via the composer’s own small discography, whether studio or off-air, or indeed via pianists who studied with him, as Rowlands and Eric Parkin both did.
No, Bebbington takes some personalised views of the music and is thus quite easy to distinguish from other pianists who have ventured into this rather rarefied discography. The instances where Bebbington takes more decisive tempi in this fourth and final volume are few. He does so in one of the best-known pieces, The Towing Path, where the sense of motion is palpable. It’s most attractively and persuasively done. What I think he achieves, and what must be therefore his intention, is to bring out the measured sense of melancholy that infuses some of these works. He has perhaps taken his cue from the composer’s own repeated strictures about giving chordal passages time, and about not playing too fast, an injunction Ireland shares with Scott Joplin. Thus, to take one specific example, the Three Pastels, dedicated to Evlyn Howard-Jones, one of the best British pianists of his day and a fellow student of Ireland, evoke darker dissonances at Bebbington’s tempi. They are not as relatively carefree as, say, Rowlands. Similarly Spring Will Not Wait is surprisingly and, I think, uniquely slow in this performance, whereas both Rowlands and Lenehan took it much faster. If you know it well, it will sound rather deliberate at this tempo.
Both Rowlands and Parkin (in his Chandos recording: he left two cycles) differ strongly from Bebbington in matters of pulse when it comes to In Those Days. Once again, my assumption is that greater chordal weight and greater tempo elasticity is designed to wring out the nostalgic but expressive disquiet that runs through much of the writing. Whether you are convinced is another matter-I do prefer the tempo judgements of Rowlands and Parkin - but Bebbington’s position is both consistent and well argued musically.  

Meine seele erhebt der herren
was Ireland’s contribution to A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen assembled in 1931. This was recorded by Jonathan Plowright in its entirety for Hyperion, a disc I greatly admired when I reviewed it. Bebbington is, by contrast, rather too inert. There is a premiere recording in this disc and it’s the transcription Ireland made of his Epic March of 1942, which is much better known in its orchestral guise. It’s certainly a useful pendant to have, and is stirring, though the bigger version is inevitably more stirring still. On a Birthday Morning, the delicious Columbine and Equinox are all splendidly played, albeit the last mentioned could be a touch more rhythmically pointed.
The recording was again made at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the acoustic of which has been perfectly judged. It sounds excellent. The booklet notes are attractively laid out, and evocatively pictured. Once again the programme has cleverly ranged between early, later and a couple of less well-known pieces. 

Bebbington proves an excellent, sometimes slightly idiosyncratic guide. I’d keep Rowlands and Parkin to hand if you can, but this newcomer has much to commend it.  

Jonathan Woolf

This newcomer has much to commend it. 

see also review by John France
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