Monday, 22 May 2017

Richard Masters plays ‘A John Ireland Recital’

Recently, the American pianist Dr Richard Masters brought to my attention his splendid 50-minute recital of piano music by John Ireland. And the good news is that it is available on YouTube.
Richard Masters website gives all his biographical information, details of repertoire, recitals, a selection of writings and several audio samples.

John Ireland (1879-1962)
Green Ways: I. The Cherry Tree II. Cypress III. The Palm and May (1937)
Piano Sonata (1918-1920)
‘Chelsea Reach’ (from London Pieces) (1917-20)
Ballade (1928-29)
Richard Masters (piano) [49:22]
Note: The Ballade and Chelsea reach were recorded at a live recital.

The works include some of my favourite Ireland pieces, including the relatively rarely heard ‘Green Ways’: Three Lyric Pieces which were composed in 1937. I guess that this work needs most introduction.
The first piece, ‘The Cherry Tree’ with its Housman-inspired title, is a little forlorn. ‘Loveliest of Trees’ was one of Ireland’s favourite poems. Rarely can a meditation on the transience of life have been presented with such concise, sad and fundamentally beautiful words. This is perfectly replicated in the music. It originally appeared in 1932 as ‘Indian Summer’ and was revised for publication as part of Green Ways.  For some reason, ‘The Cherry Tree’ was dedicated to Ireland’s legal advisor Herbert S. Brown; he was a talented amateur musician.
The second piece, ‘Cypress’, was dedicated to the composer’s accountant, Alfred Chenhalls. The cypress is associated with death, the underworld and mourning. It is often found in church graveyards. The music reflects Shakespeare’s words 'Come away, come away, death /And in sad cypress let me be laid'. (Twelfth Night, act ii scene iv). Ireland has created a suitably reflective piece. It was originally entitled ‘The Intruder’ which may mean that death intrudes upon life?
The last number of Green Ways is ‘The Palm and May’ which takes its title from a line by the English poet Thomas Nashe – ‘The Palm and the May make country houses gay’. I am not convinced that the music is quite as gay and happy as the title implies: there is certainly a touch of bitter-sweetness in these pages. It was dedicated to the pianist Harriet Cohen.
Masters approaches these three pieces with great compassion and thoughtfulness which echoes the varying, but largely melancholic mood of the music.

The most significant work on this YouTube recital is the impressive Piano Sonata (at around 9:16 on this recording). This hugely demanding work was composed between 1918 and 1920 and is one of the masterworks of the British (and World) piano repertoire. It is an immensely powerful sonata that requires deep interpretative skills and a strong technique. The basic temperament of this work is post-romantic, although there are moments of pure impressionism and even nods to Stravinsky. The pianism owes much to Brahms and Liszt, although the complex ‘added note’ harmonies are entirely Ireland’s creation.
John Ireland once said that the first movement of his Piano Sonata was about ‘life’, the second was ‘more ecstatic’ and the last was ‘inspired by a rough autumnal day on Chanctonbury Ring & [the] old British Encampment’.  I am not sure that the second movement is ‘ecstatic’ – to me it is introverted and thoughtful.
Any pianist tackling John Ireland’s Piano Sonata must appreciate the deep mysteries invoked in this work. These include the ‘supernatural’ impact of the author Arthur Machen on the composer with the references to Chanctonbury Ring.  
Richard Masters approaches this sonata with great style and understanding: all the facets of Ireland’s art are present here: ‘…the lyrical, the dramatic, the extrovert and the melancholy – the intense self-questioning and the open, almost naïve, avowals.’ (Colin Scott-Sutherland, ‘John Ireland: A Life in Music’, The John Ireland Companion. Boydell, 2011)

I had heard John Ireland’s evocative piano piece ‘Chelsea Reach’ some time before I first journeyed from Glasgow to London during the autumn of 1973. To my mind (at that time) this music summed up all that I imagined this Thames-side location represented. For the record, this ‘reach’ is the stretch of water between Chelsea Bridge and Battersea Bridge. It passes Battersea Park, the Royal Hospital and Cheyne Walk, where Vaughan William once lived. Ever since I first visited this part of the London, I have never been disappointed. It has remained one of my iconic places in London to explore, to enjoy a drink in and to simply appreciate. Richard Masters eloquently captures every nuance of ‘Chelsea Reach’.
The other two pieces (not played here) in the set of ‘London Pieces’ are thoroughly enjoyable too: ‘Ragamuffin’ is perhaps a little more of its time, however ‘Soho Forenoons’ is delightfully evocative of the atmosphere of that fascinating part of London -at almost any time in its history.

The Ballade for solo piano was composed around 1928. Although the narrative of the story is never revealed, it clearly reflects the Machen-esque mood of much of Ireland’s music.  It is a dark, lugubrious piece that is typically austere and uncompromising. There is little warmth in the near ten-minute duration.       After a slow opening, the music develops an intense idée fixee ‘a wild elemental climax [follows] in which one senses the participation of unearthly forces.’ (Christopher Palmer, Liner Notes Lyrita SRCD 2277). The final bars do give a sense of closure. This turmoil, intensity and tentative repose are well-controlled in this recording by Richard Masters.  

The pianist has told me that he thinks he is the only American pianist to have played an all-John Ireland recital. Without considerable historical investigation, I cannot prove him right or wrong. However, I feel that the truth is probably with Masters. Let us hope that he records many more pieces by John Ireland and his contemporaries (Farjeon, Livens et al). 

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