Wednesday, 13 October 2010

John Ireland: Piano Music on SOMM Volume 3

John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Rhapsody (1915) Two Pieces (1929-30) February’s Child & Aubade Four Preludes (1913-15) The Undertone, Obsession; The Holy Boy & Fire of Spring; Two Pieces (1925) April & Bergomask; Ballad of London Nights (1930) The Almond Tree (1913) Three Dances (1913) Gipsy Dance, Country Dance & Reaper’s Dance; Prelude in Eb (1924) First Rhapsody (1905-06) Mark Bebbington (piano)
SOMM SOMMCD 099 [75:48]

This is the third volume of John Ireland’s piano music to be recorded by Mark Bebbington for the SOMM label. I imagine that the remaining works will be squeezed onto a fourth volume which I hope will be released as soon as possible.

The Rhapsody (1915) is a work that could call forth a lot of comment and analysis. I shall spare the reader by making three observations. Firstly, this work balances two important thematic statements- the first is ‘rugged and assertive’ and the second is ‘more pastoral and reflective in tone.’ The progress of the music between themes is assisted by complex and largely decorative passages which are in themselves a vital part of this work and are totally satisfying. Secondly, this contrasting structure and the general mood of the music surely reflect the dark days of the First World War –the work was composed during 1915. And thirdly, it has long been known that in spite of the title, this work has connections –both emotionally and musically with The Forgotten Rite, Sarnia and even Chelsea Reach. The Rhapsody has been declared as being a ‘symphonic poem for piano’. It is a good assessment for what must be one of the composer’s finest works. It is given an excellent, perceptive performance here.

February’s Child (Two Pieces) was composed in 1929 as a birthday greeting to A.G.M. (Arthur G. Miller). Christopher Palmer has written that this piece has more than a hint of ‘wild flower freshness’ and that winter has been banished and spring welcomed in. The piece is more subtle and harmonically complex than the opening phrase may suggest.
Aubade, the second of the Two Pieces is interesting in that it was conceived as a complexity of metrical patterns with changes to the time signature in almost every other bar. This ‘morning song’ is a beautiful evocation of (possibly) the Sussex countryside. Yet there are some harder edged moments in this work that belie any naively pastoral interpretation. It is a world away from some of the earlier pieces such as Daydream and Meridian.

I have long felt that the Four Preludes are a somewhat mixed bag. In fact I am not convinced that they need to be played as a group, although they usually are. They were composed over a period of time between 1913 and 1915 and were first performed by the composer at the Aeolian Hall in June 1918. The Undertone is one of my favourite pieces of Ireland’s piano music; the introverted, reflective nature of this piece is so typical of the composer. The second prelude, Obsession was described by the Musical Times correspondent as being ‘a difficult and somewhat repellent movement’ a view which although I do not agree with entirely, I have some sympathy with. The Holy Boy has been ‘dished up’ in a wide variety of arrangements over the years; however the piano piece was the original. This deceptively simple piece was written on Christmas Day 1913 and was dedicated to Bobby Glassby, who was a chorister at St Luke’s Church, in Chelsea. The last prelude, The Fire of Spring is the finest of the set. Edwin Evans called it a ‘rhapsodical outburst’ and the Musical Times critic described it as ‘a highly original and effective piece.’

April (Two Pieces) was one of John Ireland’s favourites, which he recorded several times. For many listeners this music epitomises the natural world that the composer so loved. Ireland had taken up lodgings at Ashington in Sussex and had recently visited Dorset. This is an impressionistic piece that surely evokes images of blossom and spring flowers? Bergomask (Two Pieces) uses material from April but is in a totally different mood. This is dance music and as Christopher Palmer has noted, may be inspired by Verlaine or the Commedia dell’arte. Bergomask was originally a ‘rustic dance, so called in ridicule of the people of Bergamo, in Italy, once noted for their clownishness.’ The title was also used by Debussy and Fauré. Both April and Bergomask were composed in 1925.

I have always enjoyed The Ballade of London Nights since first hearing Eric Parkin play it on the Chandos edition of Ireland’s piano music. The composer had left this work unfinished at the time of his death in 1962. However Stewart Craggs dates this piece as having been composed in 1930. After the composer’s death the work was found in a ‘drawer full of manuscripts’ by Norah Kirby. It was completed by Alan Rowlands who did not add new material but made use of the piece’s opening material. It was published by Boosey and Hawkes in 1968. It is one of a group of works in which the composer defines the mood of London – these include the London Pieces and the London Overture. Bruce Phillips suggests that the work may have been inspired by a reading of Arthur Symons’ book of poems entitled London Nights. The work may or may not be programmatic in its concept – either way this music is impressive and thoroughly enjoyable. The ‘programme’ may suggest a ‘night on the town’ in Soho followed by a late night walk along the river to Chelsea.

The impressionistic The Almond Trees is a piece that is rarely performed. It was published in 1920, but was probably composed in 1913. Christopher Palmer has explained the genesis of this piece. Ireland was walking back to Gunter Grove in Chelsea when he saw an old Japanese print in an antique shop. It showed an almond tree blossoming against a gorgeous blue sky. The shop was closed and the composer was unable to buy the print there and then. When he returned the next day, the print had already been sold. As Palmer put it, ‘Print, tree, sky, and disappointment’ – all are heard in this evocative piece.

I am glad that SOMM have seen fit to record the Three Dances from 1913, in spite of the fact that they are usually regarded as educational pieces aimed at children; I have always enjoyed these short pieces – perhaps because I can play them! However, the listener should not be misled by their presumed simplicity- they are excellent examples of didactic music that can easily trip up the careless or over confident player. Needless to say they are played to perfection here. As far as I am aware, only Daniel Adni has previously recorded them. Bebbington takes these works seriously and gives a convincing performance.

The Prelude in E flat is the only piece of Ireland’s shorter piano pieces that does not have a descriptive title. This ‘grimly serious bit of work’ was dated 22 February 1924 and was probably written to fulfil a demand from the publisher. The piece was originally entitled Penumbra, which means a shadowy, indefinite area or image. Bruce Philips suggests that this work is about ‘youth and the passing of pleasure and passion’, a subject that was very much part of John Ireland's psyche. In spite of the ‘academic’ title this piece comes very close to revealing the heart of the composer.

The ‘First’ Rhapsody dating from 1906 is given its first performance on this CD. However I do wonder if anyone hearing this piece with an innocent ear would conclude it was composed by John Ireland. Bruce Phillips notes that the composer may have withheld this work from publication because of its ‘overt, but nevertheless, striking virtuosity.’ There is no doubt to any listener that Ireland has produced a piece of music that nods fairly and squarely towards Rachmaninov and Liszt. So, on face value this is not a typical piece by the composer. We could not deduce Sarnia, or even his published Rhapsody of 1915 from this music. Yet there are moments when Ireland does step up to the plate. Some of the quieter passages may reflect the mood of the slow movement of the 1st Violin Sonata or even the later Soliloquy for piano, for example. Yet the vitality and drama of this piece is never in doubt: it is a work that often wears its heart on its sleeve, yet never becomes simply a pastiche of the above mentioned composers. I am pleased to have been able to hear this ‘new’ Ireland work and can safely say that I believe it must now be added to the ‘received canon’ of his piano music. It is a beautiful piece that is fully worthy of its composer.

It is good that enthusiasts of John Ireland now have (nearly) five editions of the ‘complete’ piano music, although none of these are actually complete editions of all the published and manuscript works. It would be a brave reviewer who chose between editions – Alan Rowlands on Lyrita, Eric Parkin on Chandos and Lyrita and John Lenehan on Naxos. However Mark Bebbington does given an excellent account of all the pieces played on this third volume (as he did on the other two) and has shown himself to be a strong advocate for John Ireland’s piano music. Ultimately, there is no choice to be made between these versions. Anyone who loves this piano music will need and demand all these recordings. Bebbington is, therefore essential listening.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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