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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

I think this is the ninth disc in a Chandos series of recordings by the Sinfonia of London led by John Wilson. All are Super Audio CDs recorded at 24 bit/96 kHz, playable on standard CD players, but to appreciate the full glory of the sound it is necessary to play them on an SACD player. Multi-channel HiFi gives more fullness of surround sound (I heard this disc in normal stereo).

The reader can probably guess that I am very enthusiastic about the recorded quality we get here. A mildly reverberant acoustic gives a perfect cushion for the orchestra, and the strings in the Downland Suite are splendid in their unanimity and fullness of tone. The rest of the very fine orchestra play as expertly as one would expect given that the Sinfonia was re-established in 2018 as a recording orchestra, staffed by top players from British and international ensembles. It has also given public performances, and is scheduled to appear at the BBC Proms on July 16th, in an all-English programme of Elgar, Vaughan Wlliams and Bax, amongst others.

I am also enthusiastic about the performances, conducted with the necessary verve or gentleness as appropriate. (Editor - this is John Wilson's second all-Ireland release, the first being back in 2009 with the Hallé (review)).

Satyricon was inspired by the (now fragmentary) novel by Titus Petronius Arbiter, an amicus of Nero, whose cognomen reflected his reputation of a leader of fashionable activity. He ultimately fell foul of imperial politics and was forced to commit suicide, which he did by opening his veins an as tasteful a manner as possible (!). It is many years since I read a translation of Satyricon. I more or less remember a depiction of a series of escapades featuring three young men; they indulge in minor crime and with licentious or even orgiastic behaviour. Ireland said that his work was not supposed to depict any particular part of the book, but was just intended to give an overall impression of the carefree adventurers. The music is a mix of spirited, rhythmic ideas, interspersed with lyrical sections for strings and later for clarinet. The whole work is pleasing to listen to, but lacks that last ounce of melodic memorability.

The Downland Suite, inspired by the composer’s affection for the South Downs, was an original commission for brass band. Its four movements were later arranged for strings (II and III by Ireland, and I and IV by Geoffrey Bush). The best known is the intensely memorable minuet, although the Elgarian Elegy is the emotional core of the work, and it is these two movements that Ireland orchestrated for strings. The minuet has an effortless spring in its step, and is blessed with a natural melody that strikes even an unfamiliar listener as an ear-worm. The performance is delightful.

Mai-Dun is the name adopted by Thomas Hardy in The Mayor of Casterbridge for of the huge iron-age hill fort, Maiden Castle in Dorset. Ireland was much affected by locations with an ancient history, and quite literally believed in the co-existence of past and present. His music for Mai-Dun seeks to represent the human activity there, over the thousands of years of its existence. So, it comprises a bleak introduction leading to a climax, followed by a tranquil section which seems to exude the spirit of past times. The development explores and combines the previous ideas, leading to fanfares and a point of triumph in vivid orchestral colours.

Ireland’s first orchestra work, The Forgotten Rite from 1913, was inspired by the Channel islands and the works of the novelist, Arthur Machen, who believed that strange, past pagan worlds coexisted with our own. Ireland himself absorbed this belief. He wrote this of The Forgotten Rite and his time in Jersey:

“It’s a work I felt much about. I wrote it after being alone for 6 weeks in Jersey, and one felt so intensely, painfully, in fact, the indescribable beauty of the light, the sea, and the distant other islands. At that time, one felt that the very thinnest of material veils separated one from the actual Reality behind all this smiling beauty.”

He described the work as a Prelude; he was at the time much influenced by Debussy. Consequently, it has been suggested that the Rite relates to the god Pan, or maybe the Celtic rituals that so fascinated Machen. Its opening reflects Ireland’s evocative description, via soft timpani rolls, string chords and muted horn calls. A tiny five-note phrase on the flute suggests panpipes and becomes a core motif. A section leading to an ecstatic harp-capped climax follows, and the work ends with the panpipe theme played on the celesta. For me, this work may be the most effective here for evoking an atmosphere of mystic beauty.

The well-known London Overture from 23 years after The Forgotten Rite it could hardly be more different, at least as far as the cheeky, cheerful Allegro brioso section is concerned.

The very brief The Holy Boy of 1913 is an arrangement for strings of a piano piece that Ireland composed, inspired by the beauty of a boy chorister, Robert Glassby. Ireland, who was homosexual, had a bust of the child, sculpted by Glassby’s father, in his studio, and cherished it until his dying day. It is an affecting carol of the nativity (Ireland’s words).

The Epic March was commissioned by the BBC as a patriotic march to raise the spirits of the people in the dark, opening days of the war. Ireland somewhat reluctantly agreed to compose it, but said that in no way could be a “Pomp and Circumstance” affair. Instead, it was to be “Stern and Purposeful”. Ireland incorporated the rhythm of the morse-code V for Victory in the opening section. The march is effective, inspiring without any tub-thumping, and ends in a spirit of optimism.

The presentation is up to Chandos’s normal high standards, with a very detailed analysis of each work and a history of the orchestra, accompanying a brief biography of John Wilson, all in English, French and German.

Jim Westhead

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