Saturday, 15 December 2012

Piano Music of John Ireland on SOMM Volume 4

Piano Music of John Ireland Volume 4
John Ireland (1879-1962)
The Towing Path (1918) Three Pastels: A Grecian Lad, The Boy Bishop, Puck’s Birthday (1941) Summer Evening (1919) Soliloquy (1922) ‘Spring Will Not Wait’ (1926-7) In Those Days: Daydream, Meridian (1895) Merry Andrew (1918) Leaves from a Child’s Sketchbook: By the Mere, In the Meadow, The Hunt’s Up (1918) Meine Seele (1931) Epic March (1942)
Pastoral (1896) Month’s Mind (1933) On a Birthday Morning (1922) Columbine (1949/51)
Equinox (1922)
Mark Bebbington (piano)

I have said this before – but it bears repeating. In the early nineteen seventies, I got hold of three Lyrita LPs of piano music by John Ireland played by Alan Rowlands.  I treasured these, as it was unlikely that it would ever be recorded again. Therefore, it is hard to believe that 40 years later, there are some five complete or near complete cycles of this music available in the CD catalogues.  Out of interest, these are by Alan Rowlands, Eric Parkin (two separate recordings –one on Lyrita and the other on Chandos) John Lenehan (Naxos) and finally by Mark Bebbington.  One of the desiderata of reviewing is to compare versions. Yet in this case, it is a matter beyond my capability or desire. I admit to a preference for the Lyrita versions by Alan Rowlands and Eric Parkin. However this is probably predicated on the fact that it was with these recordings that I first seriously explored this repertoire.  Both of these pianists worked with the composer – so there is a certain authority to their interpretation that may be lacking from Lenehan and Bebbington. However, I have never been disappointed with any of these recordings: all these performers give valid and sympathetic accounts of Ireland’s music. They are all in my collection.
There are three facets to Mark Bebbington’s fourth and final disc in this present cycle. Firstly, there are the ‘standard’ pieces from Ireland’s repertoire – such as ‘Merry Andrew’, ‘Equinox’ and ‘The Towing Path’. Secondly there is the delightful ‘children’s’ piece Leaves from a Child’s Sketchbook and finally there are a number of extremely rare or première recordings.  It is the last two aspects on which I wish to concentrate. 

However, a few words about the potboilers. The CD gets off to a great start with the barcarolle-like ‘The Towing Path’. It is one of the earliest Ireland pieces I heard ‘live’ and it is still one of my favourites.  The deeply expressive Three Pastels date from 1941 and are revisions of earlier pieces: they are sensitively played here.  ‘Summer Evening’ is a delightful piece of ‘South Downs’ pastoral music. Its 1919 date suggests that the composer was harking back to the Edwardian pre-Great War era.  The ‘Soliloquy’ is one of Ireland’s easier pieces to play. However, this technical facility does not hide the deeply-introverted mood of the music: it is heartbreakingly beautiful in its exploration of love and loss. ‘Spring will not wait’ is the last ‘movement’ or ‘epilogue’ to the song cycle ‘We’ll to the Woods no more’ (1928).  I am never convinced that this piece should be excerpted from the vocal work, although Stainer & Bell have issued it as a separate piece.
Included on this disc are the two pieces ‘Daydream’ and ‘Meridian’ from In those Days. These were composed when Ireland was still a student at the Royal College of Music however, he did not agree to publish them until 1961 after some gentle revision in 1941.
The final four pieces on this CD present the reflective ‘Month’s Mind’ with it 'longing desire’, the ebullient ‘On a Birthday Morning’ dedicated to close friend Arthur George Miller, the ‘Ravelian’ waltz ‘Columbine’ and lastly the toccata-like ‘Equinox’ portraying a summer storm in both the landscape and in the heart.

In 1918 Winthrop Rogers issued Ireland’s offering to a younger, less technically competent audience – probably at about today’s Grade 4 level.  If I am honest, one of the reasons I like Leaves from a Child’s Sketchbook is because I can play them – whereas the majority of the composer’s ‘grown up’ music is beyond my gift.  As the Musical Times reviewer noted, these numbers ‘show the not too frequent combination of simplicity and significance.’ I am pleased that Bebbington has chosen to play these wistful pieces with seriousness and with no condescension.

I have never had the opportunity of hearing ‘Meine Seele’, although it has been recorded before by Jonathan Plowright. This was part of the well-known, but now rarely-heard A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen assembled in 1931. This volume contained a number of miniatures by Granville Bantock, Arnold Bax, Lord Berners, Arthur Bliss, Frank Bridge, Eugene Goossens, Herbert Howells, Constant Lambert, Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and W. Gillies Whittaker.  All were direct transcriptions of Bach’s music arranged for the piano. Ireland’s contribution was ‘Meine seele erhebt der herren’ (My soul doth magnify the lord) which was derived from the fourth (BWV 648) of the Six Schübler Chorale Preludes for organ.  The cycle was first performed at the Queen’s Hall on 17 October 1932 by the dedicatee. I must admit that the piece does not really appeal to me- somehow it lacks interest. However, it is good to have this piece for ‘completeness.’

In 1941, John Ireland was approached by the Ministry of Information and invited to compose a patriotic march. The ‘Epic March’ was duly first performed at a Promenade Concert on 27 June 1942.  The piano transcription of the Epic March does not work – but then neither (in my opinion) does that of Walton’s Crown Imperial or even Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance No.1. They seem to lack any sense of pianism. I also believe that it (Epic March) is a little too long. However, that does not belittle the piece – the middle section is truly lovely and presents a deeply felt tune that deserves to be part of the ‘ceremonial music' repertoire. There is nothing particularly epic about the march – except for the wartime circumstances in which it was composed.  It is well played by Mark Bebbington, and once again, it deserves its place in this ‘complete’ survey of Ireland’s music.
The third ‘novelty’ is the ‘Pastoral’. If this piece were played to the ‘innocent ear’ listener would not guess that it was written by John Ireland. This splendid work was written in 1896 by the student composer whilst he was staying at the village of Pontwgan in the Conwy Valley. The work portrays the landscape in a near perfect way. I noted in a previous review of this piece that the music ‘contrasts the the darker, introverted mood of the hills with smiling fields in the valley on a hot summer’s day.’  I do wonder if Wales was the actual inspiration for this piece or whether its true genesis was events or locations nearer to London. It was previously included in John Lenehan’s survey of Ireland’s piano music.

The CD is attractively presented with a fine ‘sepia’ photo of 'The Towing Path’ at Pangbourne. The liner notes by Bruce Phillips (President of The John Ireland Charitable Trust) are well-written and extremely helpful. The disc is filled with some 74 minutes of music.  Finally, the sound quality is all that I have come to expect from SOMM.
This present recording concludes Mark Bebbington’s exploration of the ‘complete’ piano music of John Ireland. Each CD has presented a well-balanced programme that examines different aspects of the composer’s remarkable achievement. I have enjoyed Bebbington’s performance on this disc and throughout the series. I consider that his playing is excellent, is sympathetic and reveals a deep scholarly and emotional engagement with this important and beautiful music. 

I stick by my assertion that all lovers of John Ireland’s music will insist on owning all the currently available editions of the piano works – including the excellent EMI discs by Daniel Adni and Desmond Wright. However for completeness, the Bebbington cycle cannot be beaten. It is an excellent place to begin (and complete) a detailed exploration of some of the finest piano music in the repertoire of British music. Finally, if SOMM and Mark Bebbington are looking for other composers’ music to ‘explore’ – how about Harry Farjeon, Leo Livens or Alec Rowley?
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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