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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Sonata in G minor (1923) arr. Matthew Forbes [20:28]
Summer Evening (1920) arr. Graham Parlett [4:24]
In a May Morning (from Sarnia) (1940-41) arr. Parlett [6:59]
Soliloquy (1922) arr. Parlett [3:33]
Bagatelle (1911) arr. Parlett [2:36]
Berceuse (1902) arr. Parlett [3:06]
Cavatina (1904) arr. Parlett [5:09]
A Downland Suite (1932/78) arr. Ireland/Geoffrey Bush [17:18]
Raphael Wallfisch (cello)
Orchestra of the Swan/David Curtis
rec. Townsend Hall in Shipston-on-Stour, England, on 26 June and 5 July, 2015
NAXOS 8.571372 [63:34]

My introduction to John Ireland’s music was through a Lyrita LP which included The Overlanders Suite, since reissued. I thought it was terrific, although critical opinion then and now seems to look down on it as some of his lesser work. The marketers didn’t, it seems, as a scene from the film emblazons the LP cover. That scene, as it happens, is accompanied by one of my favourite passages from the Suite, The Brumbies, with the wild horses’ agitation depicted by a vigorous interplay of orchestral strings. This memory, more than anything, drew my interest to the current review disc, devoted to Ireland’s music for string orchestra.

Or so it says on the CD cover. Closer reading reveals that Ireland’s string orchestra hand was involved, and not entirely, in only one of the works, that being A Downland Suite. The rest are string orchestra arrangements, some with cello, of other Ireland compositions – three for solo piano, one for cello and piano, and the other for violin and piano, in three parts. The liner notes mention that the two outer movements of A Downland Suite were orchestrated in 1978 by Geoffrey Bush. No dates are given for the other arrangements, but as “World Premiere Recordings”, according to the blurb, one can only assume they’re quite recent. The CD otherwise bears the imprimaturs of the British Music Society and the John Ireland Charitable Trust, with acknowledgement of their financial support. If there is a “truth in advertising” issue here, it probably lies in the court of Naxos, who presumably had final say on the CD’s presentation.

All that aside, this is a lovely and fascinating disc. Being completely of Ireland’s music in string orchestra arrangements, it provides a consistent platform for absorbing the evolution and influences on his compositional style over nearly 40 years. What strikes one is an almost constant tension between moving musically forward with the times and a deep yearning for the past. Throughout these works, either as interludes in longer pieces or as complete movements, Ireland adopts a quintessentially English lyricism that is closer to Elgar than to Vaughan Williams, but with a harmony and sonority decidedly his own. Indeed, there are a number of pieces that would be candidates for, if not already condemned to, one of those unfortunate Swoon collections.

The opening Sonata in G Minor for cello and strings, an arrangement of Ireland’s cello and piano sonata in the same key, demonstrates these tensions possibly more than any other work on the CD, also being the most substantial. It may be no coincidence that this assertive piece was composed and premiered in 1923 at about the time Ireland was appointed professor of composition at the Royal College of Music. Its expressiveness, passion and occasional plaintiveness are splendidly communicated by Raphael Wallfisch and the Orchestra of the Swan under David Curtis, in Matthew Forbes’ telling arrangement.

Except for the concluding A Downland Suite, all other arrangements are by Graham Parlett, a staunch champion of British music and the less-feted composers such as Ireland, Bax and Moeran. The first two pieces, Summer Evening and In a May Morning (from Sarnia), are for orchestra only, and while composed 20 years apart, sound remarkably similar in style and mood. This was confirmed by sampling the piano originals in Eric Parkin’s survey (review), attesting also to the faithfulness and beauty of Parlett’s arrangements. The following Soliloquy and three early ‘salon music’ pieces, arranged for cello and string orchestra, are simply luscious, and played with palpable affection by Wallfisch and company.

As fittingly as the concert begins with the most substantial piece, it ends with the best known. A Downland Suite, with its popular Minuet movement, was originally a test piece for the National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain. Ireland arranged the Minuet and Elegy for string orchestra in 1941 and, as noted earlier, Geoffrey Bush orchestrated the Prelude and Rondo in 1978. Numerous recordings of the suite exist, in whole or part, including Sir Adrian Boult’s of the Minuet and Elegy on Lyrita (review). I found in particular the new recording more successful in the Minuet, where Curtis chooses a slightly swifter tempo than Boult, guiding the music more surely through its central section before reappearance of the signature tune. To the obvious question of whether Ireland’s arrangements differ perceptibly from those of Bush and hence Parlett and Forbes, I can simply answer “no”. The composer, one hopes, would have been delighted.

The recording, at Townsend Hall in Shipston-on-Stour, is as ideal for this music as could be imagined – full and warm, yet beautifully detailed. Wallfisch’s cello is impeccably balanced, with glorious tone, as a leading but not dominant voice in the ensemble. An occasional sense of strain in the orchestra’s upper strings is readily mollified by the forgiving acoustic.

Unless I’m mistaken, this CD will not be alone for long. If you know John Ireland’s piano and other music of the kind that makes up this release, you would believe there’s fertile ground for more of the same. I’m sure the ever-enterprising Naxos and its travelling companions will make it happen if that’s the case, and this CD sells well. That said, I’m also fairly resigned to the same liberty being taken in calling it Ireland’s “Music for String Orchestra Vol. 2”!

Des Hutchinson

Previous review: Ian Lace



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