Lyrita – John Ireland: Chamber Music

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Phantasie Trio in A minor
Piano Trio No.2 in E
Piano Trio No.3 in E
Sextet for Clarinet, Horn and String Quartet
Sonata for Cello and Piano
Fantasy-Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
Sonata No.1 in D minor for Violin and Piano
Sonata No.2 in A minor for Violin and Piano

Yfrah Neaman (violin), Julian Lloyd Webber (cello) & Eric Parkin (piano)

Melos Ensemble [Emanuel Hurwitz & Ivor MacMahon (violins), Cecil Aronowitz (viola), Terence Weil (cello), Gervase de Peyer (clarinet) & Neill Sanders (horn)]

André Navarra (cello), Gervase de Peyer (clarinet) & Eric Parkin (piano)

Yfrah Neaman (violin) & Eric Parkin (piano)

Recorded in 1971, 1972 & 1976

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: December 2007
(3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours



John Ireland (1879-1962) was one of that remarkable generation of English composers who studied with Stanford at the Royal College of Music, London, in the 1890s and 1900s. These three Lyrita CDs contain all of his published chamber music apart from the two string quartets he wrote as a student, and a couple of short pieces for violin and piano.

Disc 1 contains Ireland’s three piano trios. The Phantasie Trio was written in 1906 as an entry in the annual competition organised by the wealthy businessman and chamber music enthusiast Walter Willson Cobbett. Cobbett was keen on encouraging exploration of the fantasy form adopted by so many English composers in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, in which successive sections of a single-movement piece were united by a single theme. Ireland’s work won second prize in the 1908 competition. It is dedicated to Stanford, whose teaching methods sprang from his admiration for Brahms (though Ireland is said to have known so much Brahms already that Stanford decided he would be better off studying Renaissance composers like Palestrina). While Brahms is undoubtedly an influence on Ireland’s early work, it is Dvořák who seems to be the stronger presence, in rhythmic and melodic turns of phrase, and in its harmonic language, though this also occasionally takes more of a Strauss-like chromatic turn than Dvořák would have countenanced.

Piano Trio No.2, from 1917, is also in one movement, although rather more intricately structured than the Phantasie Trio. Much of the work grows out of the opening slow section, and moves through a variety of moods, from vigorous energy to fragile lyricism, ending in a bold, outgoing frame of mind with the piano part suggesting pealing bells.

The Third Piano Trio of 1938, dedicated to William Walton, is in four movements and re-works a trio for violin, clarinet and piano of 1913. The first movement moves from a gentle opening to a big-boned, sonorous conclusion. It is followed by a scherzo with something of a folk-dance flavour (though Ireland was never part of the folk-music revival movement led by Vaughan Williams) somewhere between a march and a jig. It gets an incisively rhythmic performance here. The slow movement is the longest and most intense emotionally, while the finale is a robust piece in which the extrovert ending suggests the influence of the equivalent passage in Ravel’s Piano Trio of 1914 (which, if this is correct, would therefore be a feature of the re-written work, not the original).

The second disc opens with the Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet, the earliest work in this collection. It dates from 1898 but had to wait until 1960 before the composer was persuaded to make it available for performance. While Ireland himself pointed to similarities with Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet it is a more genial work altogether, the first movement engagingly outgoing, with a thoughtfully lyrical Andante and a relaxed Intermezzo, and a finale in which you can sense Ireland starting to reach beyond his early Brahmsian manner in search of a distinctive voice.

The Cello Sonata, of 1924, is in three movements, a dark, restless opening Moderato e sostenuto followed by a gently meditative slow movement whose peaceful close is abruptly shattered by the unexpectedly spiky gestures that launch the finale. André Navarra and Eric Parkin give the work an impassioned performance, though Navarra’s held note at the very end is just a whisker under pitch.

The Fantasy-Sonata for clarinet and piano was Ireland’s last chamber work, dating from 1943. Dedicated to Frederick Thurston, it is in a single movement, gently introspective for the most part but with a quick final section full of driving energy.

Of the two Violin Sonatas that make up the third disc, No.1 was first composed in 1909 and won first prize in that year’s Cobbett competition. Ireland revised it in 1917, the year in which No.2 was completed. Each is in three movements. The First opens with a movement full of the composer’s characteristic vein of haunted lyricism, contrasted with more strenuously muscular passages. The second movement’s song-like outer sections enclose a passage suggesting something remote and mysterious, while the finale is full of playfully propulsive energy. Sonata No.2, dedicated to the English violinist Albert Sammons, created a considerable stir at its first performance, and the first printed edition was sold out before publication. Hugh Ottoway, in New Grove, calls it “a landmark in the English music of that period”. It’s a darker, more overtly passionate work than No.1, with a slow movement marked by an understated but profound sadness. The finale, after a rhetorical opening, features what sounds remarkably like an East European folk-dance tune, leading to a conclusion whose exuberance has been hard-won.

Fine as the other works in this set are, I suspect it is the Second Violin Sonata that I’ll be coming back to most often. Ireland could scarcely have wished for more eloquent advocates than the sympathetic and committed performers on these recordings. Yfrah Neaman and Eric Parkin are particularly outstanding in the violin sonatas, penetrating to the desolate heart of the Second Sonata’s slow movement. The recordings are warm, intimate and clear. Eric Parkin provides the notes on the trios, Thea King those on the Sextet and the cello and clarinet sonatas, and Frederick Grinke on the violin sonatas.

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