About this Recording
8.572598 - IRELAND, J.: Piano Concerto / Legend / Rhapsody / A Sea Idyll (Lenehan, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Wilson)

John Ireland (1879–1962)
Piano Concerto • Legend • First Rhapsody • Pastoral • Indian Summer • A Sea Idyll • Three Dances


John Nicholson Ireland was born on 13 August 1879 in Bowdon, a prosperous south Manchester suburb. He died on 12 June 1962 in West Sussex, and was buried in the small churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Shipley, in an idyllic setting surrounded by the downland countryside that was so important to him. Perhaps more than many other composers, John Ireland’s personal world is played out in his music, with pieces closely linked to places, people and literature. The music on this recording embraces some of the locations and individuals that meant so much to him. It also reflects the very different musical sides of the composer, from poetic miniatures to large-scale orchestral works. After his studies with Stanford at the Royal College of Music (RCM) Ireland had a long and varied career as a performer, examiner and teacher, and as a composer best known for his songs, piano and chamber music. His music for keyboard reflects his own considerable abilities as a solo pianist, organist and accompanist.

The Piano Concerto in E flat is one of Ireland’s most radiant and uplifting works, written for his beautiful young protégée, Helen Perkin (1909–96). She came into his life at a period of great stress, following an intense ten-year relationship with a young man and former chorister, Arthur Miller (1905–86). Perkin was an important soloist throughout the 1930s and to a lesser extent after the Second World War. She was also a composer of songs, sonatas and string quartets, orchestral and brass band pieces, ballet and film scores. From 1927 she studied with Ireland at the RCM. In 1929 he dedicated his song Hymn for a child from Songs Sacred and Profane to her. During 1929 she worked on a one-movement Phantasy for string quartet, completed in December. This quartet went on to win the prestigious Cobbett Chamber Music Prize in 1930, previously won by Bridge and Ireland, and later, in 1932, by Britten. Ireland spent much of 1930 working on his new Piano Concerto. This work is closely associated with Helen Perkin for a number of reasons, one of which is that the principal theme of its first movement is related musically to her 1929 Phantasy. In addition, the whole piece resonates with the brilliance and energy of her youthful manner, and was conceived with the best aspects of her playing in mind, especially her brilliant fingerwork. The première took place on 2 October, as part of the British Composers’ Night series at the Promenade Concerts, an event which served to fill the Queen’s Hall to overflowing.

The three interrelated movements are in E flat major, B major and E flat major, as with Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, ‘Emperor’. Structurally it is a conventional concerto, with a sonata-form first movement for example, but like so many of Ireland’s works it also captures a moment in time, particularly in its slow movement dialogue between piano and orchestra, which is essentially a love-song. The third movement is perhaps the most enigmatic of the three as it contains a quotation from an earlier piano piece, Spring will not wait, which Ireland had dedicated to Miller. The concerto was one of Ireland’s most successful works, swiftly taken up by many eminent performers such as Clifford Curzon and Arthur Rubinstein, its success due not only to its sympathetic piano writing, but also to its sparkling orchestration featuring percussion (silent until the transition between the slow movement and the finale) and trumpet with fibre mute suggested to Ireland by the dance-band leader Jack Payne). Helen Perkin performed it twice more at the Proms, in 1931 and 1934, but in 1935 she married an affluent architect, George Adie (1901–89), and her contact with Ireland ended. She attempted to resume the friendship in 1939, but was unable to do so amicably. Ireland’s letters to her in the early 1950s became increasingly vitriolic, and it was a shock to her to find that the dedication to her had been removed from the score of the Concerto. She, however, continued with a performing and composing career, emigrating to Sydney in 1965, where she lived until her death in 1996.

Helen Perkin was also the soloist in the first performance of Legend, again at Queen’s Hall, in January 1934. This is a very different work, a dark, brooding evocation of an ancient landscape. West Sussex was a spiritual haven for Ireland, as for some other musicians of his generation such as Parry and Elgar. Between 1922 and 1934 Ireland visited the county on a regular basis, with all his major Sussex-inspired works dating from this time. He eventually settled in a Sussex windmill (Rock Mill) in 1953. One of the attractions of the area was its many prehistoric sites, such as Chanctonbury Ring and the Devil’s Jumps (a series of five Bronze Age bell barrows near Treyford). In Legend (1933), for piano and orchestra, Ireland tells a story of a strange encounter he had while walking in a remote spot on the Downs, close to Harrow Hill. This is an inaccessible spot, the site of neolithic flint mines, an Iron Age enclosure and a medieval lepers’ colony. For a fleeting moment Ireland believed he saw a group of children dancing, dressed in archaic white clothing. One of the early ideas for a title for the work, derived from associations with Bronze Age barrows, was Queen Fridias. Legend opens with a solo intoning French horn and subterranean clarinets, primeval bassoon and distant timpani rumblings. On to this primitive landscape Ireland projects a piano soloist: the solitary person entering the uncanny landscape. He uses deliberately archaic modal harmonic language and a version of the Dies irae to evoke the ancient lepers’ path. The very different central section introduces his dancing children into the landscape. The final section of the work uses the original horn invocation to lead the protagonist away from Harrow Hill. Ireland described the experience in a letter to the writer Arthur Machen, who replied on a cryptic postcard: “So you’ve seen them too”.

In addition to these two big works for piano and orchestra Ireland left a large corpus of pieces for solo piano. After leaving the RCM he worked mainly as an organist and pianist, experimenting with different musical genres. Pieces from this period include an Orchestral Poem (1904) and the brilliant and virtuosic First Rhapsody in F sharp minor, completed in January 1906 in Chelsea. While he dismissed a number of these early works as studies on the way towards his 1906 Phantasie-Trio in A minor, nevertheless, he preserved the manuscripts, and this rhapsody contains the germs of his later works, such as Sarnia (1940), with its contrasting lyrical, wistful and virtuosic sections. It also exploits the full range of the piano in the tradition of nineteenth-century piano music of Brahms and Liszt.

Ireland also wrote many programmatic miniatures for piano, and in 1999 a previously unknown work was discovered at the RCM. This was a short piano piece, completed on 20 August 1896 while the composer was staying in Pontwgan, in the countryside of North Wales. It is simply entitled Pastoral. Though this is an early student work, written before he became one of Stanford’s composition students, aspects of the piece show that he was already attempting to symbolize the pastoral in music, and it contains the germs of musical motifs associated with the English countryside. Indian Summer belongs in this category of landscape pieces. First published in 1932, it was then revised, given the new title The Cherry Tree, prefaced with a quotation from A.E. Housman and published as part of a set of three short piano pieces under the title Green Ways. The original version is more languid, a rhapsodic miniature with a single main theme, and an example of one of a number of fluid, rippling piano pieces that Ireland wrote that rely on figuration as a means of encapsulating rural idyll.

While there are some piano works from the early period of Ireland’s career, including A Sea Idyll in 1900, piano music does not feature prominently in his output at this stage. There are, however, several pieces in which the sea plays a rôle: the 1899 symphonic prelude, Tritons, and ballads and songs such as his popular Sea Fever (1913). Ireland’s sea was a real location, a backdrop for personal experiences, and especially the sea of the Channel Islands, which he visited a number of times before the First World War. Within these seascapes he often uses repeating figurations as a representation of water, as in the first movement of A Sea Idyll. This piece also shares its opening A flat major tonality with a very early work, the recitation for voice and piano, Annabel Lee. The version recorded here is Ireland’s full three-movement work: Poco andante, Allegro appassionato and Andante (Mesto).

The Three Dances, Gypsy Dance, Country Dance and Reapers’ Dance, were published in 1913, when Ireland’s most assured and individual compositional voice was emerging. In this year there were works for voice and piano, significantly the cycle Marigold and Sea Fever. There were also piano pieces, including Decorations and Preludes, a Trio for clarinet, cello and piano, and The Forgotten Rite for orchestra. The three dances perhaps had a pedagogic purpose as short, technically simple rustic works.

Fiona Richards

The solo piano works on this recording are published by Stainer & Bell Ltd. in The Collected Works of John Ireland Volume 1 (Three Dances) and in Volume 6 (First Rhapsody, Pastoral, Indian Summer, A Sea Idyll). Indian Summer, A Sea Idyll and Three Dances are copyright EMI Music, Music Sales and J. Curwen & Co. Ltd respectively. The Piano Concerto is published by Music Sales and Legend by Schott.

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