In his excellent notes, on which I shall draw freely
for background in this review, Jeremy Dibble makes clear that John Ireland,
a High Church Anglican by sympathy, spent a good deal of time as a practising
church musician. Starting in his student days, probably in 1895, he
was organist in a succession of London churches until 1926. Even thereafter
he hankered to get back into an organ loft and briefly achieved his
ambition as Director of Music in a church on Guernsey in early 1940.
Sadly, the German invasion of the Channel Islands a few months later
put an end to that appointment; Ireland escaped back to the British
mainland but never again held a church appointment.
Against this background it’s unsurprising that the music he wrote
for the liturgy, as represented on this excellent disc, should have
feel to it; it is, to borrow Hindemith’s term,
music for use. I hasten to add that I don’t mean to belittle the
music in any way; it’s all good music and some of it is much better
than good. What I mean is that the music we hear from Lincoln Cathedral
choir sounds eminently singable. Ireland didn’t by any means compromise
his artistic standards in these pieces but it seems clear that he sought
to write music which the choirs who took it up would find pleasurable
to sing and which would connect with the congregations.
Indeed, when he was commissioned to write his Communion Service in C
he was given an explicit brief to compose music that would be within
the compass of an average choir. This, I think, he did successfully,
adding a ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ as companion pieces
nearly thirty years later. The F Major Service pieces are musically
more substantial. Here, too, the music was not all written at the same
time. The Te Deum, which is sturdy and confident for the most part,
was composed in 1907 but the Benedictus and the Evening Canticles followed
in 1914/15 and these three pieces are unified especially by a common
doxology. Aric Prentice and his Lincoln choir perform these four pieces
very well indeed: the Te Deum is a well-chosen opener to their programme
for they give it a stirring performance.
Ireland’s practicality as a church music composer was not confined
exclusively to the choir stalls: he didn’t forget about the congregations.
People all over the world have sung the hymn My song is love unknown
nearly 100 years now: how many know the identity of the composer of
this fine tune? I wasn’t familiar with the hymn tune Sampford
but it, too, is a good one; it’s vigorous, confident and - that
word again - very singable.
Inevitably - and rightly - Aric Prentice has included in his programme
the Passiontide anthem Greater love hath no man
. Indeed, no programme
such as this could omit it for it is one of Ireland’s best-known pieces
in any genre and a very fine anthem. I’ve known it since I first
sang it as a schoolboy and I still find it memorable and moving. It
only takes a few minutes to perform yet it seems to have a much bigger
span. Ireland orchestrated the anthem in 1924 and this version was recorded
by Richard Hickox for Chandos in 1990 (CHAN 10110X) but I think this
large-scale version is too much of a good thing. A spirited, sensitive
performance by a really good church choir accompanied by organ is much
more satisfying and that’s exactly what we get here. The other
anthem is Ex ore innocentium
for high voices, which Jeremy
Dibble rightly describes as “ravishing”. It receives a first
rate performance here, launched by a very good solo soprano, Ffion Frazher.
The Lincoln choristers sing this exquisite little piece with lovely
Also most enjoyable are the four unaccompanied carols. The best known
is The Holy Boy
, Ireland’s 1941 arrangement of one of his
earlier piano pieces. It’s sensitively done here. I also enjoyed
very much the performance of Adam lay ybounden
with its nice
swinging tune. I was intrigued to read in the notes that this setting
makes a brief reference to The Holy Boy
which Jeremy Dibble suggests
may be a rueful reference.
Throughout this programme the Lincoln Cathedral choir is on top form
and I enjoyed their singing very much: clearly Aric Prentice has trained
them well. Charles Harrison contributes some excellent accompaniments
- and two good solos. He’s playing on the cathedral’s 1898
four-manual organ which was the last large instrument the building and
finishing of which was personally supervised by ‘Father’
Henry Willis. According to the booklet it’s scarcely been altered
since and it sounds exceptionally well on this recording.
This disc is very well worth hearing by all who love the music of the
English Church. The music is rewarding and enjoyable and it’s
been splendidly served by the musicians of Lincoln Cathedral.
See also reviews by Ian