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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
My Song is Love Unknown - The Church Music
Te Deum in F (1907) [6.45] Benedictus in F (1914) [4.54]
Communion Service in C (1913) [14.52]
Hymn: My Song is Love unknown (1920) [2.56]
Elegiac Romance (1902) [8.27]
Evening Service in C (1941) [4.40]
Hymn: Christ the Lord is risen today (Sampford) (1940) [2.05]
Greater Love hath no man (1912) [5.29]
Hymn: I am trusting (Eastergate) [1906) [2.35]
Capriccio for organ (1911) [5.03]
Four unaccompanied Carols (1927/41) [8.27]
Ex ore innocentium (1944) [3.24]
Hymn:Island Praise (1915) [1.53]
Evening Service in F (1915) [5.56]
Lincoln Cathedral Choir/Aric Prentice
Charles Harrison (organ)
rec. Lincoln Cathedral, 6-7, 27-28 Feb 2012. DDD
NAXOS 8.573014 [77.05]

When I was a choirboy both in the High Anglican all-male tradition of the parish church and later in cathedral worship, the church music of John Ireland was part of our staple diet. This involved the Te Deum in F and the Benedictus for Choral Matins once a month; more often this was linked with the Communion Service in C and the linked Evening Service. We became so familiar with this music that we tended to call them “wash-day services” to be knocked off when we were otherwise engaged in ‘more significant’ pieces.
The present disc was recorded during the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death. Hearing these works again, freshly now, after several years of being away from them, I have come to realise what skill Ireland manifests in these settings. We can relish those pleasing harmonies, the imaginative word-painting and the memorable melodic lines. These are to be found throughout the Communion Service in C alongside a simple and clear structure. The Te Deum boasts unison passages divided between the voices, an independent yet supportive organ part and a general sense of Edwardian solidity. It’s all very much in the tradition of Stanford, Ireland’s one-time teacher. Ireland worked in solidly middle-class churches in London - Holy Trinity, Sloane Street and Sydney Street, Chelsea. The latter was immortalised by Sir John Betjeman and can be seen pictured in a lovely black and white print from 1909.
All of Ireland’s best known works for the liturgy are here and to Lincoln Cathedral Choir this music is bread and butter. Occasionally it sounds like it but the choir is never weary of their work or dreary in delivery; just sometimes lacking in excitement. Even so this is a good anthology of standard compositions by a man who made a life-long and significant contribution to England’s church music heritage.
So what are the highlights?
Ireland, as a young man, was primarily a church organist as well as a choirmaster. He had studied the organ as his first instrument at the RCM so it is not surprising to find some organ pieces. However, as with his church music, he was not prolific. He had a private family income but needed a little extra cash. As Muriel Searle says in her Ireland biography he “topped up his allowance” with pieces of this ilk. She goes on to quote Ireland’s confidante Norah Kirby that “his only thought was that he would be able to play such a magnificent organ” (Midas Books, Tunbridge Wells, 1979).
It appears that not all of the organ pieces are now available in print. Some, in any event, are quite modest. That said, the fine Father Willis organ is played dexterously by Charles Harrison. He gives us a happy little Capriccio- something of a display piece especially when played at this brisk pace. It has almost a sense of the fairground about it. The Elegiac Romance is moving and deeply felt. One wonders if Ireland ever planned to orchestrate it. Listening to this piece and indeed to major orchestral works like Legend and Mai-Dun one can understand what Adrian Boult might have meant when describing Ireland as “one of the interesting and complex characters in British Music” (Preface to Searle’s book).
The organ sounds impressive and tonally flexible in the solos but becomes a little indistinct when accompanying. This is rather a pity especially in the next discussed piece. Aric Prentice commands a brilliantly spirited and dramatic performance of Greater love hath no man in which the boys especially sound on top form. This emphasises that this is indeed a worthy work and one of Ireland’s masterpieces. A shame that the balance with the organ is just a little problematic.
There are four hymns. My Song is Love Unknown is the best and most often heard in many churches. Of the others, I am Trusting is rather solemn. Island Praise is for men’s voices and is more like a little anthem having been written during the First World War for those fighting at sea. With Ex ore innocentium Ireland sets the words of a hymn by Bishop Walsham How, ‘It is a thing most wonderful’. He turns them into a through-composed anthem or motet for the bright-toned boys alone. It is quite song-like in style although a little too sentimental for my taste.
Most of the Four unaccompanied Carols are rightly familiar. Adam lay-y-bounden has suffered because of Boris Ord’s more lively setting and Britten’s for treble voices. Robert Southwell’s poem New Prince, New Pomp - which we used to sing as boys at Lichfield - was also set by Britten in his Ceremony of Carols. Ireland’s homophonic, compound time setting seems a little tame. The Holy Boy is really a song but the more chromatic harmonies are exquisite and far more searching than those of the other carols. The New Year Carol was also set by Britten but I prefer Ireland’s setting written for radio.
This generously filled disc comes with an ideal example of a booklet essay by Jeremy Dibble. Naxos has been able on this occasion to revert to printing full texts.
All in all then, this disc is a must for any lover of English church music.
Gary Higginson