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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
A Downland Suite (arr. Ireland and Geoffrey Bush) (1932) [18:17]
Orchestral Poem in A minor (1904) [13:30]
Concertino Pastorale (1939) [19:52]
Two Symphonic Studies (arr. Geoffrey Bush) (1937) [11:38]
City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
rec. 31 October-1 November 1994, St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London
CHANDOS CHAN10912X [63:50]

I have long known and loved Ireland’s Piano Concerto, in the recording by Eric Parkin with Bryden Thomson, which is coupled with the Legend for piano and orchestra and the symphonic poem Mai-Dun (review). However, I have never got round to exploring the rest of Ireland’s orchestral music so I was glad to receive this disc which offers four works, none of which I knew previously.

The Downland Suite was originally written for brass band in 1932 as the test piece for a brass band championship competition. Ireland later arranged the two middle movements, of the original four, for string orchestra and commented that they were more effective in this form. His pupil Geoffrey Bush was much later commissioned by the John Ireland Trust in 1978 to make a version of the whole suite, and did so, restoring the order of the two middle movements. You can hear the brass band origin of the opening movement, which is vigorous with a touch of melancholy. However, you would never have guessed the origin of the two middle movements, a gravely beautiful elegy and a charming minuet. The work is rounded off with a rondo, and the result is now really a short symphony for strings.

The Orchestral Poem, as you can see from its date, is a very early work. At the time the great exponent of the symphonic poem was Richard Strauss and you can hear Ireland taking something from Strauss in the rather brash opening. After that matters seem to ramble on until we get to a vigorous conclusion. The work is episodic, the episodes don’t have a great deal of character and Ireland does not have the ability Strauss developed to make them both individually gripping and woven into the overall structure. However, it is worth hearing as an example of a route which Ireland chose not to go further down.

The Concertino Pastorale, on the other hand, is a complete success and a fine work. It was for a time really popular though, like much of Ireland’s music, it has rather disappeared from view. It has a beautiful opening Eclogue, an expressive Threnody and a strong Toccata finale. The mood and texture remind me strongly of Tippett’s Concerto for double string orchestra which came a year after Ireland’s work. I wonder whether Tippett knew it.

The Two Symphonic Studies have a complicated history. They were drafted in short score as part of the music for the film The Overlanders (1946), Ireland’s only venture into this medium, but were not actually orchestrated or used. Nor are they included in the concert suite from the film which Mackerras compiled and which has been separately recorded (review). Again Geoffrey Bush came to the rescue. It seems that Alan Rawsthorne also had some hand in them and certainly the title echoes that of his 1938 work Symphonic Studies. Bush thought they were a worthy successor to Ireland’s Mai Dun. They are not quite that good but are well worth hearing. The first has an exploratory opening followed by calls to arms on the brass which lead to a rather Hindemithian fugue. The second contains a very exciting chase, or even a stampede – apparently there is one in the film – which reminded me of the menacing music of Bliss’s Things to Come. By the way, an extended suite of music from The Overlanders was premiered in February 2017 by the Ealing orchestra conducted by John Gibbons.

Hickox conducts with that combination of energy and sensitivity which made him such a successful recording conductor and the recording itself is big and generous in the Chandos manner. The notes are helpful. The disc is issued as part of Chandos’s Hickox Legacy series at midprice. Ireland enthusiasts who missed this the first time round will want this for the Orchestral Poem of which this is the first and, so far, the only recording. Boult was a great champion of Ireland and recorded all the other works here in the 1970s in versions which are still well thought of but on separate discs (review review review). Although the Concertino Pastorale is the only absolutely first rate work on the disc, and two of the others have been through some re-handling by others, enthusiasts need not be deterred.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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