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Ireland orchestral CHSA5293
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John Ireland (1879-1962)
Satyricon Overture (1932)
A Downland Suite (1932)
Mai-Dun (1920-1921)
The Forgotten Rite (1913)
A London Overture (1936)
The Holy Boy (1913)
Epic March (1941-1942)
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2021, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London

Another Sinfonia of London disc recorded at the sessions and rehearsals grouped around their debut at the BBC Proms in late summer 2021. I recently reviewed their disc of Ravel which originated from the adjacent run of days and was not wholly convinced by the final result. As with previous discs, the actual playing was at a phenomenally high level and Chandos give these recordings their top drawer SACD engineering but the question arose regarding John Wilson’s interpretative insight into Ravel’s nuanced and subtle soundworld. Any review is bound to be a snapshot – and a pretty instant one at that – of a new recording. Sometimes one’s appreciation of a performance can deepen with further and more extended listening but I have to say that has not happened with that Ravel disc despite its many technical virtues.

So I was interested to hear this companion disc – in recording date terms at least – to see if Wilson is more attuned to John Ireland’s aesthetic and orchestral voice than Ravel’s. To which the short answer is yes. No real surprise here given that Wilson recorded almost exactly the same programme back in 2007 (The Downland Suite and The Holy Boy here replacing The Overlanders film music suite on the earlier disc) with The Hallé on their own label – a disc that was received very positively indeed. Here on MusicWeb it was nominated as a recording of the month in February 2009. Curious that with so much repertoire he has yet to record, Wilson revisits this repertoire – I can only assume that this is music Chandos are happy to ‘refresh’ in their catalogue given that the competing – and still very fine -Hickox/LSO performances are now thirty years old. Going further back, the only other comparable collections of Ireland orchestral music are the pair of Lyrita discs with Sir Adrian Boult conducting the LPO. These were recorded in the mid 1960’s and were the first(?) orchestral recordings made under the Lyrita banner by the Decca recording team of Colin Harvey and Kenneth Wilkinson. How fine they still sound is a testament to the skill and dedication of all involved. So it really does just come down to whether this new disc “adds” or improves significantly on the high standards of its antecedents. For someone seeking a one-stop-shop survey of Ireland’s orchestral, concertante and choral works the pair of Lyrita discs are hard to beat. But for any music to survive it needs to be performed by new generations of artists and certainly this new disc does add to one’s understanding and appreciation of Ireland’s Art.

Very often Ireland is categorised as an “English Impressionist” which is certainly a neat and pretty accurate description. For sure he almost totally avoided the nationalist/folk-song influence of Vaughan Williams or the late Romantic convulsions of his good friend Bax. He remains one of the most important British piano composers of the 20th Century where his fame rests mainly on smaller form works. Given that predilection, the sheer quality of his writing for orchestra is an on-going delight. Part of the reason that his catalogue of orchestral music is so small is that he was fiercely self-critical with every bar and every note considered and polished. But scattered fairly evenly across his active composing career are a series of impressive orchestral scores from The Forgotten Rite of 1913 to the Satyricon Overture of 1946. Although Ireland was to live for another sixteen years he did not write another significant orchestral score. With the Sinfonia of London’s discography growing it is becoming possible to discern certain performance characteristics in Wilson’s conducting style. The technical level of playing – especially from the strings – is superlative with exceptional levels of unanimity in terms of attack, intonation and ensemble. However, this does encourage Wilson to opt for extremes especially in terms of articulation. The faster sections tend to be very very clipped, the accentuations pronounced, rhythmic patterns given with stunning precision. But this comes at the expense of some musical warmth and humanity. Then in the slower passages the strings are encouraged to play with a near-Hollywood glamour certainly when the dynamics of such passages increase. For sure this is an impressive sound but one that is suitable to some parts of the repertoire more than others.

The disc opens with the late Satyricon Overture which is in essence a comedy overture along the lines of Walton’s Scapino or Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel. The edgy jagged rhythms of the opening suit Wilson’s style very well with the richness of St Augustine’s Church giving the clipped playing a supportive warmth to the sound which in less forgiving acoustics would be too dry. Another feature of the orchestra is the poise and beauty of the principal winds and around four minutes in there is a lovely example of this with a quite breathtaking clarinet solo over a hushed bed of strings. At this point Boult’s clarinettist is more plangent and his basic tempo allows for less reverie.

The Downland Suite which follows remains a relative rarity. The work sounds so well in this string orchestra guise that it comes as a continuing surprise to realise that it was originally written for brass band. Andrew Burn in his excellent detailed liner note explains that Ireland considered creating a string orchestra version soon after the original was written as “Ireland felt it could be more effective on that form.” Yet for whatever reason, he only managed to prepare the central movements Elegy and Minuet for strings in the early 1940’s. It was not until 1978 that the John Ireland Trust turned to composer (and former Ireland pupil) Geoffrey Bush to complete the string orchestra version. This explains why the early Boult/Lyrita recording from the mid 60’s is of Ireland’s two-movement transcription only. Despite the beauty and attractiveness of this score, it has not been recorded that often since the first complete performance in 1981. Hickox used his City of London Sinfonia for his earlier Chandos series. There was another Chandos recording from 1984 with David Garforth conducting the English Chamber Orchestra as well as a Naxos Disc – volume 5 of their “English String Miniatures” series with Gavin Sutherland conducting the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. This latter series balanced interesting repertoire with a nagging sense that rehearsal time was limited. There is a second much more recent Naxos recording from David Curtis and The Orchestra of the Swan which is part of an attractive all-Ireland string music programme but this new version is superior. The Hickox is reliably good albeit with a smaller sounding string section than here. For this new disc, the Chandos engineers bring the Sinfonia of London strings a fraction more forward in the mix and by doing so find a near ideal balance between string sonority and detail. Overall this is a very successful performance with the actual music not allowing the ‘pecking’ at the string that emerges elsewhere. The second movement Elegy is a highlight – well paced and sensitive. My only quibble is the very end of the closing Rondo. The part is marked “stringendo” [literally increasing speed] where Wilson does a sudden and excessive acceleration. The Sinfonia strings play this with total aplomb but the extreme tempo feels as though it is being done so because they can, not because it makes musical sense.

The two works that follow are Ireland’s tone-poems in effect if not in name. Both reflect Ireland’s fascination with the landscape of Southern England and a literally visionary view of its history. I say literally visionary because more than once there are stories of Ireland seeing ‘happenings’ – ancient children dancing for example – at historic landmarks such as Chanctonbury Ring. Mai-Dun – Symphonic Rhapsody takes its name from the ancient earthworks of Maiden Castle in Dorset. In a letter to a colleague Ireland described it as “impressions of the hill fortress of that name”. The skill Ireland has is in creating a work that on one level is aural impression of the existing landscape whiles also evoking the spirit and essence of the place and its distant history. The work immediately creates a stern and determined atmosphere from its opening bars. Interestingly Boult here adopts a heavier trudging pulse than Wilson which perhaps is even more evocative. The first big climax around 2:15 sees Wilson deploy a string slide into flattened 7th leap to a high C [the third bar of figure 8 marked “broader time”] followed by another more discreet slide four bars later rising a minor 3rd. Boult plays both these clean which instinctively I prefer, Wilson’s effect being at odds with the drama of the preceding pages. There is a downward glissando marked in the score immediately after this second added slide so I wonder if Wilson was taking that as reason for the earlier interpolations. There follows anther reverie section which is beautifully played although Wilson displays his preference for making a “un poco animando” marking more molto than poco. It certainly heightens the drama and instant impact of the moment but turning to Boult he is a lot more nuanced in his treatment of those markings – no doubt some will prefer Wilson’s more impetuous energy. The benefit of Boult’s approach is that the work emerges as more organic and less episodic than Wilson – no matter how compelling those episodes might be. The earlier Chandos recording was entrusted to Bryden Thomson and the LPO who follows Boult’s less impetuous approach to tempo adjustments but Wilson’s penchant for string portamenti. Barbirolli recorded this work – and several other Ireland pieces too – but I am not sure it ever made it to CD so I cannot make a comparison here. Overall, I do think this new performance is a good and impressive one.

Likewise the following Forgotten Rite which was Ireland’s first mature orchestral work and as such is remarkably assured and impressive. Again the work deals with the blurring of present and distant past – the liner quotes a letter from Ireland to a friend where he describes feeling “..that the very thinnest of material veils separated one from the actual Reality behind all this smiling beauty...” Andrew Burn sees the use of “Prelude” in the title as an allusion to Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and certainly this is the most overtly impressionistic score on the disc. Indeed there is an argument that says the Rite of the title is to the same God Pan that Debussy’s faun embodies. The opening of the work is marked “Lento e mistico” with the Chandos engineering capturing very well the careful dynamic graduations from p to pp down to ppp. If Debussy is an influence then I hear more than an echo of Delius in this opening too – especially in the rising motif that seems to be a variant on Delius’ “gesture of farewell” that inhabits so many of his greatest works. But Ireland was in his mid-thirties by the time he wrote this work so whilst it might be his first major orchestral score he was hardly a young or inexperienced composer. One of the significant differences between this work and the others presented here is that Ireland really develops a single mood. He will tweak tempi with a “poco piu lento” or a “pochettino accel.” But the work does not divide into distinctly faster/slower passages as elsewhere. The briefly exaultant fff climax around 5:12 dissolves within three slowing beats to pp under some very evocative harp glissandi before the closing bars marked “lontano possible” – a dynamic the Chandos engineering on this new disc is able to capture effortlessly. The Lyrita engineering for 1966 is pretty remarkable but simply not as good at capturing this magical atmosphere. Hickox back with the LSO for Chandos Mk.1 is daringly slow compared to either Wilson or Boult who share a very similar seven and a bit minute mark – Hickox is a full two minutes slower than either. I have to say this is one of those odd instances when Boult/Wilson do not feel rushed and Hickox does not feel slow – all are fine performances.

Wilson continues with A London Overture and to my ear less successfully. After an atmospheric opening the work reaches its well-known “Picc-a-dily” Allegro brioso first main section. This is one of those passages where Wilson is so focussed on the tightness of the rhythms and ensemble that the essential “brio” and humour of the music is lost. Comparing it to the famous Sir John Barbirolli/LSO performance on EMI is an absolute object lesson in allowing air and light into an orchestration – there is benevolence in the music-making here. Wilson’s tight rein simply reduces the light-heartedness of the music. For sure the actual playing virtues are still front and centre but at some cost. The disc is completed by the brief string transcription of The Holy Boy and the written-to-order Epic March. The former receives a good, pretty straightforward performance. The latter is my least favourite piece by Ireland simply because it is not really “him”. A commission from the wartime Ministry of Information this is Ireland trying to be something he is not – a ceremonial march writer in the style of Elgar or Walton or latterly Bliss. The opening has a curiously Rozsa-esque “Pax Romana” feel to it that whenever I hear it makes me think it should be heralding a biblical epic filmed in cinemascope. If you must hear this march then best go for the full cinematic experience from Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnatti Pops on Telarc. Wilson does a perfectly good job but it remains Ireland at his least individual or impressive. As such a shame to end the disc with – if it needed including at all – better to use the spare room on the disc for any of Ireland’s remaining orchestral works.

Overall a good addition to the Ireland discography especially for the excellent versions of The Downland Suite and The Forgotten Rite. The quality of the music-making is matched by the predictable excellence of the Chandos engineering and packaging right down to the evocative Whistler painting used for booklet. The two Boult/Lyrita discs will remain the cornerstones of any collector’s Ireland discs with Boult displaying an authority and innate control of tempo that Wilson cannot match. However, this does provide valuable alternatives in state of the art sound.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Jim Westhead (Recording of the Month)

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