Fantasy Sonata for Clarinet and Piano (1943) The Lent Lily from The Land of Lost Content (1920/21) The Vain Desire from The Land of Lost Content (1920/21) Santa Chiara (Palm Sunday) Naples (1925) Rhapsody for Piano (1915) Mother and Child (Song Cycle) (1918)
Sonata for Cello & Piano (1923)
Julian Hellaby (piano) Peter Noke (piano) (Cello Sonata) Naomi Wright (cello) Linda Merrick (clarinet) Catriona Lang (soprano)
ASC RECORDS ASCcd150
This outstanding CD opens with one of John Ireland’s ‘late’ works – in spite of the fact it was composed nearly twenty years before his death in 1962. It was his last major work for chamber ensemble.
The liner notes suggest that the Fantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano was in the ‘line of succession’ from the Cobbett Chamber Competitions which demanded a one-movement work that nodded to the early English ‘fancy’. However the present sonata is actually a considerable development of that form. What Ireland has achieved is the metamorphosis of the ‘Phantasie’ into that of a formal sonata. Although the work is nominally in one fourteen minute sweep, the actual structure reflects three ‘interrelated but unrepeated sections’.
The Fantasy Sonata can be seen as a summing up of the composer’s musical styles. There are elements of impressionism here, possible allusions to Brahms, an extension of his characteristic bitter-sweet harmonies and even the ‘jazzy’ mood that was a feature of his Piano Concerto. In a contemporary article, Scott Goddard suggested that there is a stylistic balance between the ‘newer’ instrument (the clarinet) and the ‘older’ piano. This is a deep work that has autumnal colouring, however it is also broadly optimistic; I note the especially beautiful ‘tranquilo section at the start of the nominal ‘slow movement.’ Linda Merrick and Julian Hellaby give a definitive performance.
The Fantasy-Sonata was dedicated to Frederick Thurston, who gave the premiere in a Boosey and Hawkes concert at the Wigmore Hall on 29 January 1944: the pianist was Kendall Taylor.
I was a little disappointed that space could only be found for two of the songs from the Housman cycle The Land of Lost Content. The opening number ‘The Lent Lily’ and the fourth song ‘Vain Desire’ have been included and are well sung. The ‘agnostic’ ‘Santa Chiara’ (Palm Sunday: Naples) with words by Arthur Symons may well echo the composer’s ‘inner conflict between Christianity and paganism’: it is full of sorrow and despair. This is a beautiful description of Palm Sunday in the Bay of Naples –‘The sea is blue from here to Sorrento/And the sea wind come to me’.
The Rhapsody (1915) is a big, complex work that has been described as a ‘symphonic poem for piano.’ It was composed in 1915 during the First World War and reflects the composer’s troubled mood at this time. The progress of the work is dominated by the contrasting of two themes – one ‘rugged and assertive’ and the other is ‘more pastoral and reflective’ in mood. The Rhapsody is well-played here with an ideal balance of the two prevailing temperaments.
I must confess to not being a great fan of the song cycle Mother and Child which are settings of poems by Christina Rossetti. There is always a danger that these sentimental verses become morose and ‘lachrymose.’ Although the words of these songs may no longer appeal to the modern ear three things can be said in mitigation. Firstly, in Rossetti’s time, many more children died young than is now the case. Secondly, Ireland’s attraction to these poems may well reflect his anguished approach to the loss of many friends during the Great War: they were composed in 1918. And lastly, whatever the listener’s feelings are about the naivety of the text there is no doubt about the quality of the music. John Ireland has pared down his largely ‘romantic’ piano accompaniment style to the barest minimum: there is nothing ‘splashy’ here, only a perfectly judged balance between singer and accompanist. These songs are given a beautiful performance: Catriona Lang manages to bring out their essence without ever becoming mawkish. It is a rare achievement.
There are nine or ten versions of the Cello Sonata currently on the books of the Arkiv catalogue, so it is interesting to hear another offering. The Sonata was completed during December 1923 and was given its premiere the following year by Beatrice Harrison and Evlyn Howard-Jones. This is not programme music; however it is difficult not to sense some of the feeling that imbued works such as The Forgotten Rite. Places associated with this work may include The Devil’s Jump and Chanctonbury Hill, both in Sussex. The Sonata is written in three movements - a ‘moderato e sostenuto’, a ‘poco largamente’ and a ‘finale, con moto a marcato’. Musically, this is a tightly constructed work that has cross-referencing of themes across all movements. For me the highlight is the introverted middle movement –it is one of the loveliest things in the cello/piano literature. The work has been well described by Marion Scott as ‘...beginning quietly for cello alone, is cumulative and [ends] very brilliantly!’ This performance by Naomi Wright and Peter Noke is impressive.
The CD sound quality is excellent. The liner notes are a good basic introduction to the composer and this music; however, I felt they could have been a little more fulsome. For examples, the great Rhapsody is dealt with in just over 50 words, with nearly half of these discussing the early 1906 ‘Rhapsody’. The performances were all enjoyable; however I was most impressed by the Fantasy Sonata. It will be my preferred version over the coming years.
I believe that this CD is a fine introduction to the music of John Ireland – featuring chamber works, a piano piece and a number of songs. The project had been supported by the John Ireland Charitable Trust and is worthy of support. All John Ireland ‘fans’ will want this CD in their collection.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared.