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Widening the scope

TREVOR HOLD discusses John Ireland's songs in the light of a new recording

CD Review
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John Ireland (1879-1962) is one of the major English Romantic song-composers, yet compared with Quilter, Warlock, Gurney and Finzi, he is frequently neglected by both recitalists and listeners: unaccountably so, for his songs range from the light and popular to the darkly sombre and potentially cater for a wide range of tastes. As in all his music, there is a strong autobiographical element in his solo songs, which act almost as a musical diary of his feelings. Hence we have recurrent phrases and ideas which echo from song to song when similar emotional situations occur. His setting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'The one hope' is probably the most extreme example, being virtually an anthology of his songwriting techniques, yet for all that marvellously compact and subtle. It may well be that this intimacy, the very private nature of his songs, disturbs some listeners, who prefer something less subjective in their music - unless of course the composer is Mahler......

The Songs of JOHN IRELAND - Copyright (c) 1999 hyperionThis recording, however, should satisfy even the most timid. Of the composer's 90 or so songs, nearly 70 are included here; the only major omissions are The Land of Lost Content and Marigold, which are represented by a token song from each ('Ladslove' and 'Spleen'). It includes one rarity, the Dowson setting, 'When I am old', dating from the 1920s but the manuscript of which has only recently come to light; this is the first-ever recording. The songs span 35 years of Ireland's career, from Songs of a Wayfarer (1903-5) to Five XVI Century Poems (1938), and range from the money-spinning ballads 'Sea Fever' and 'Great things' to the songcycles We'll to the woods no more (1927-8) and Five Poems by Thomas Hardy (1926). The latter is one of the sombre masterpieces 20th-century English song and could be by no-one but Ireland. One can do no more than marvel at the ease with which he sets Hardy's none-too-easy-to-set words. There is a masterly balance between vocal-line and accompaniment, neither dominating the other. Maltman and Johnson's performances are at their best here. (click to listen.) Equally fine is Lisa Milne's performance of 'Her song', from Ireland's other Hardy 'cycle, Three Songs to Poems by Thomas Hardy (1925). It shows Ireland's skill with the strophic song, particularly the way he adapts his music from verse (click to listen) to verse (click to listen).

Ireland's importance as a songwriter lies not only in the quality of his individual songs, but also in his attempt to widen the scope of English song. This is evident in the wide range of contemporary poetry that he set, including, as well as Hardy and Housman, Arthur Symons and John Masefield, and taking in such unexpected names as Sylvia Townshend Warner and Aldous Huxley, both of whom are better known as novelists than poets. Ireland's setting of Huxley's early poem 'The trellis' is one of his most satisfying achievements, and John Mark Ainsley's performance captures the drowsiness of a hot summer day perfectly. (click to listen.)

Another way that Ireland expanded the scope of English song was in his rethinking of the role of voice and piano. Earth's Call (1918) - subtitled 'A Sylvan Rhapsody' - goes beyond the bounds of the traditional solo song, with the piano having long solo interludes; the 14-lines of Harold Monro's sonnet are given a spacious five-minute setting. It is indeed a tiny operatic scena and looks forward to the solo cantatas and canticles of Tippett and Britten. Equally unusual is his second Houseman 'cycle, We'll to the woods no more, which consists of two song settings followed by an epilogue, 'Spring will not wait', for piano alone.

The singing throughout is superb - Maltman is in particularly good form - whilst Graham Johnson's accompaniments are, as ever, beyond praise. My only quibble is that some of the songs are placed rather randomly. Why, for example, is 'Tryst' separated from its companion, 'During music'? They were intended by Ireland to be a diptych. And why include just 'Ladslove' from The Land of Lost Content? As with any song in a songcycle, it loses its impact when taken out of context.

Lest the impression be given that John Ireland's songs are all doom, gloom and 'lost content', let us end with the composer in lighter vein. One of his most attractive works is his last song-book, Five XVIth Century Poems, where Warlock-like, he casts his net amongst the shoals of Elizabethan lyrics. 'An aside' is a rare but welcome example of Ireland's impish humour. (click to listen.)

Copyright © Trevor Hold, August 14th 1999



Lisa Milne, soprano
John Mark Ainsley, tenor
Christopher Maltman, baritone
Graham Johnson, piano

CDA 67261/2 (2 CDs)           DDD            153'34

Copyright © 1999 Hyperion Records Ltd.

Recorded in association with the John Ireland Trust


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