Tuesday, 22 December 2009

John Ireland: Piano Trios on Naxos

John Ireland (1879-1962)
Phantasie Trio in A minor (1908) Piano Trio No.2 in E (1917) Piano Trio No.3 in E (1938) Berceuse for violin and piano (1902) Cavatina for violin and piano (1904) Bagatelle for violin and piano (1911) The Holy Boy for violin and piano (1913/19)

The Gould Piano Trio Lucy Gould (violin); Alice Neary (cello); and Benjamin Frith (piano);
rec. 13 -15 June 2008, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk
NAXOS 8.570507

John Ireland’s Piano Trios are a critical part of his repertoire. Certainly they form an ideal way to explore his chamber music. And for once, I would suggest that the listener approaches these three works in the order they written.
The Phantasie Trio in A minor was one of many works composed for the illustrious Cobbett Music Competitions announced in 1907. The twenty-eight year old composer submitted this present piece alongside some 37 other entrants. It is probably reasonably well-known that the winner of that competition was Frank Bridge. However, Ireland scored a joint second with the now largely forgotten James Friskin. The winning pieces were performed at the Aeolian Hall on January 1909.
The Musical Times reports that this work was characterised by “extreme brilliancy and strenuousness and is rich in musicianship”. It is a sentiment with which even a cursory hearing will reveal. The same review notes that Ireland was called to the platform twice –and considering that Brahms Trio in B was also performed the writer felt that it was a “triumph for British chamber music”. Structurally, the work mirrors sonata form, but is written in one continuous movement with the four parts reflecting the exposition, the development, the recapitulation and a coda.
The great critic Edwin Evans felt that the Phantasie Trio marked the end of Ireland’s early compositional period and the starting point of a new direction. He conceded that there was a lot of characteristic ‘Ireland’ writing here. He noted that the mood of the work is “classical throughout, and [that] unity is secured not so much by derivation of the thematic material...as an affinity of themes which maintain their independence”. He concludes by suggesting that the “use of themes which are homogonous without being positively related often produces a better result, and the cohesion of this attractive trio is not the least of its many qualities.”
This Trio is a work that certainly deserved its prize and makes, in spite of Evans’s prose, an approachable introduction to John Ireland’s chamber music.
The Piano Trio No.2 is in complete contrast to the Phantasie. For one thing this work was composed in 1917, a time when the full horrors of the Great War were manifest. Both this work and the slightly earlier Second Violin Sonata are usually regarded as expressing the composer’s feelings about the tragedy and the loss of the Great War. Yet although the composer allegedly told the cellist Florence Hooton that the ‘allegro guisto’ section “evoked the boys going over the top’ this is not a ‘Battle of the Trafalgar’ type of musical confection. It is perhaps more to do with Ireland trying to cling to “the beauty that remained on the earth amidst the carnage and inhumanity of the battle.” In spite of alleged warlike allusions there is much in this Trio that has a ‘haunting beauty’ and interestingly the work concludes on an optimistic note bearing in mind the date of its composition.
The sleeve notes quote Fiona Richards in her book The Music of John Ireland (Ashgate 2000) “This is a work of mixed emotions, contrasting passages of stark textures and caustic harmonies with effusive moments and grim marches. The structure of the work is a succession of episodes exploring different mood, all of which are melodic metamorphoses of the first eighteen bars of the piece”. It is a wise and appropriate summary of what is not an easy work to come to terms with.
The final Trio is my personal favourite. I have long felt that this work describes a landscape – not in any pictorial manner, but quite simply manages to capture the mood of a day’s exploration on the Chanctonbury Ring and the South Downs. It is to do with the composer’s or the listener’s response to that landscape. But this is also more about mere picture painting. It is about Ireland’s response to the genre of chamber music, his personal stylistic development and manages to complement both the mature composer and the youthful enthusiasm of his earlier scores. It is perhaps no surprise that he dedicated the work to William Walton. I have noted elsewhere that although Walton is the dedicatee, there are quite a few nods to Vaughan Williams in these pages. This is perhaps most obvious in the scherzo where there even appear to be allusion to a kind of folksong. Perhaps the highlight of the work is the romantically overblown slow movement.
This Trio was composed in 1938 and does not really respond to the international situation that was already engulfing Europe. The score incorporates a deal of material salvaged from the withdrawn Clarinet Trio. That work has been recently recovered and realised by Stephen Fox. It was released on Naxos 8.570550. It is important to realise that this earlier score was completely reworked and expanded: it was not just an arrangement. The Trio in E is written in four movements, which on the one had are contrasting, but on the other are thematically related to the opening ‘allegro moderato.’

It would be very easy to ignore the four salon pieces which have been included as makeweights for this CD. Somehow Naxos were some 12 minutes shy of a full hour and decided to allow these charming woks to appear alongside the main event. Oh! that they had chosen to present the James Friskin Phantasie in A minor which came second equal in the 1907 Cobbett completion –assuming that the score and parts still exist.
But these miniatures are certainly worth reviving occasionally. As the sleeve notes suggest, the first two of these, the Cavatina (1902) and the Berceuse (1904), “show that Ireland had a gift for melody in the style of say Elgar’s Salut d’amour or Chanson de Matin”.
The Bagatelle is a piece that I have not heard before. It was composed in 1911 for Marjorie Haywood who was soloist in the composer’s substantial First Violin Sonata. All three of these works could be described as charming: none of them are essential.

We are on different territory with the final piece – The Holy Boy. This work, written in 1913, was originally the third movement of the Four Preludes for piano which were not published until 1917. This work has been ‘dished up’ in a number of different arrangements including for string orchestra, organ, four part choir and cello and piano. Lately it has appeared on a Naxos CD in a version for clarinet and piano. The sleeve notes suggest that the inspiration for this piece may have been the Georgian poet Harold Munro’s Children of Love, which begins with the lies “The holy boy/ went from his mother out in the cool of the day” and evokes a meeting between Jesus and Eros. Perhaps a more prosaic suggestion is that the inspiration for this work was a certain Bobby Glassby, a chorister at St Luke’s Church in Chelsea. It is possible that it was both.
I enjoyed the playing by the Gould Piano Trio and felt that they had truly entered into the spirit of the music. They apply themselves with equal attention to the heavier Trios as well as the lighter salon pieces.
The programme notes are good and introduce these works well. There is so much that could be said about the Trios in particular, that it is quite a work of art to provide sufficient information in a manageable format.
Fundamentally, the competing versions are those on Lyrita, Chandos and ASV. What is the preferred version? Well, to paraphrase my late father – No one makes, and tries to sell, a bad version of the Ireland Trios.” Each of these releases is a great recording in their own right. I was ‘brought up’ on the Lyrita recording and have a certain bias towards that one. However, a comparative study notwithstanding, I suggest that this present release is a great investment. As I often say, all Ireland enthusiasts will insist on adding this CD to their collection.

With thanks to MusicWeb International

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