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Robert Matthew-Walker
International Record Review, January 2012

The recording is excellent, and Andrew Burn’s notes are first-rate… © 2012 International Record Review

David Hurwitz, September 2008

These two youthful works, composed some six months apart in 1897, hardly reflect John Ireland's mature style, but they are tuneful and nicely put together. Read full review at ClassicsToday

Em Marshall
MusicWeb International, April 2007

Another English music gem from Naxos, including Ireland’s two strings quartets and a quartet version of his famous Holy Boy. The string quartets are both early works, written while Ireland was studying at the Royal College of Music. The first quartet was composed in 1897 as an attempt to impress Stanford, whom Ireland regarded very highly and wanted as a teacher. Although Stanford apparently dismissed the work as “dull as ditchwater, m’boy”, he nonetheless arranged a performance of it by the students, and Parry, then the Director of the College, commended it. Ireland wrote the second quartet six months later, and, in the end, achieved his great desire, and was given a four-year scholarship to study with Stanford. Although Ireland’s own voice has not yet emerged in these works, and they show the influence of other composers, such as Brahms, they are well-written, assured and delightful pieces.

Ireland’s only other work for string quartet is an arrangement (one of a number, for different combinations of instruments) he made in 1941 of the third of his Four Preludes for piano, the Holy Boy.

The Maggini Quartet’s performances on this disc cannot be faulted – the playing is beautifully lyrical, expressive and sensitive. They work together brilliantly as an ensemble, and, importantly, allow the music to breathe, never hurrying, but taking the works at a relaxed – but never sluggish – pace; listen to their gorgeously romantic and evocative version of the Holy Boy. They capture the nuances and various moods of the music well, from delicate and gossamer through to robust and vigorous, in boldly confident playing. Hear the first movement of the second string quartet, for example.

Charming works and radiant performances. A must.

American Record Guide, December 2006

Almost everyone familiar with Johannes Brahms knows he struggled with the string quartet form and never returned to it after completing his third quartet. Many music lovers have their own problems with those works and find them thornier and more difficult than the composer's other chamber music. All of which makes for a fascinating comparison between Brahms's three quartets and John Ireland's two.

Where it was the mature Brahms who finally tackled what many believe is the most challenging musical form for a composer, Ireland (1879-1962) wrote his quartets when he was 18 and 19 years old. The first was an audition for Charles Villiers Stanford, with whom he hoped to study at the Royal College of Music. Stanford found the work dull and would have rejected Ireland's application but for the intercession of the school's director, Hubert Parry. Why Stanford disapproved, I have no idea. Ireland's First Quartet is hardly dull, and there is nothing radical about it to raise Stanford's conservative hackles. A prankster might convince me these are two recently discovered quartets that Brahms forgot to burn. Brahms's touch is everywhere, though Ireland's "Brahms" is mostly rhythmic: the signature hemiola, themes coming off their measure's strong beats, driving motor accompaniment off upbeats, thumping dotted rhythms in both duple and triple patterns, plenty of sixths, and strokes of aching but wistful phrases. It will take little effort to spot these "Brahmsisms". Some are suggestive; others are almost lifted from the older man's manuscript. For all that, Ireland's quartets stand on their own as undiscovered gems. What amazes me about Stanford's disdain for the First Quartet is not that he didn't care for the work but that he didn't recognize its craftsmanship and maturity.

How come we haven't heard these works until now? For these quartets are good pieces, with structure, inspiration, spirit, and good tunes-all with enough English lyricism to give them their own sound. As for those who find Brahms's quartets thorny, fear not. Ireland's are more lighthearted and high-spirited. Even where he reaches for one of Brahms's autumnal sounding themes, he does so with simpler harmony and lighter lyricism.

The opening Allegro of the First Quartet (1895) appears to be in 12/8 rhythm and propelled by dotted triplet rhythms, recalling the same movement from Brahms's First Quartet. Molto Allegro is a clinic on Brahms's off-the­pulse propulsive rhythm. The Andante Moderato is lyrical, wistful, and (yes) autumnal in a way that is startling for such a young composer. The Finale brings us another allegro, this one with a Brahmsian second subject and some joyous fugal treatment in the development.

The Second Quartet (1897) is slightly dark­er and perhaps more mature. It draws even more on Brahms, plus a bit of Dvorak in I, while the complex, vigorous theme-and-variation finale could have found a home in Beethoven's middle quartets. The idyllic Nocturne achieves some interesting colors and contrasts by employing mutes (well described in the notes). The A section of the ABA Scherzo is motor driven in a way that reminds me a little of the finale of Brahms's First Cello Sonata, while the trio adds a subtle twist to Brahms's long meandering melodies that begin on upbeats.

The Holy Boy may be Ireland's most famous piece and appears here in one of its many incarnations- string quartet. It is a nice bonus.

The two string quartets represent a path that Ireland did not take, though he did write a Brahmsian sextet in 1898. Once he discovered Debussy and Ravel he turned his attention in that direction and more or less joined the "English Impressionist" school of Frederick Delius and Arnold Bax.

The Maggini Quartet has done well in English chamber music, and they are just as good in English music that leans to the German, particularly in producing energy, life, and clear lines. The sound is fine if just slightly bright.

Colin Anderson
Fanfare, December 2006

The English composer John Ireland (1879-1962) is here represented by his only two string quartets. Both are student works (written before he was 20) and are fluent, idiomatic, and immensely likeable. The healthy and engaging first movement of No. 1 seems to betray influences of Grieg, and the work as a whole- whether in the scurrying second movement (not termed Scherzo), eloquent slow movement (rather Brahmsian), and the lively, country dance finale- gives much pleasure.

This compact work, playing here for 22 minutes, was followed by the more enterprising C-Minor Quartet; both pieces gained Ireland a scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London. He had been there since just before his 14th birthday, nominally studying the piano and organ, but he was most ambitious to compose. (Andrew Burn's booklet note is very informative.)

String Quartet No.2 (here timed at 32 minutes) begins, maybe, with a reference to Dvorak; certainly he comes strongly to mind. The generally outgoing nature of No.1 gives way to something more introspective and lyrically expansive- really quite lovely, in fact. The slow movement, marked Andante, is also termed Nocturne, and the use of mutes brings a dark and compelling hue to this deeply felt creation. The earthy third movement is this time termed Scherzo, and a purposeful one it is, too, the Trio being a flowing and flowering contrast. The finale (in terms of minutes and seconds) is the longest movement (just) of the four, a theme and variations of imposing achievement, both rhapsodic and directional, often resolute, and the final bars are lively and impassioned.

Two works, then, that make for gratifying listening, and there's no doubting young Ireland's impeccable craftsmanship and quality of invention. One can certainly hear his influences, but one can also savor his burgeoning talent. The performances from the Maggini Quartet are simply magnificent: what devotion these musicians lavish on this music. Furthermore, the recording is quite superb in its intimacy, blend, and balance-the listener feels like the "fifth" member.

The CD layout places The Holy Boy between the two quartets. Ireland's only other work for string quartet- and this is by default, and the piece's popularity, for this is the composer's arrangement of a piano piece composed on Christmas Day, 1913. It is a haunting miniature of yearning but not syrupy beauty, and most often heard (in my experience) in Ireland's version for string orchestra (of which Sir Adrian Boult made a wonderful recording for Lyrita). On string quartet, from the Maggini, The Holy Boy speaks confidentially and raptly across the decades.

Elissa Poole
The Globe and Mail, September 2006

John Ireland's string quartets have the earnestness of student works, which is what they are. Written in the shadow of Brahms when Ireland was in his teens, the allegros are pretty much all work and no play. But his future as a song composer shows in the slower movements, which have a gentle, melancholy lyricism and more than a touch of the English countryside. The scherzos, too, are buoyant and joyful. The Maggini Quartet, which has been making a specialty of British composers for Naxos, performs these quartets as if they were lost gems: This disc ought to send listeners on to their recordings of Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Bax, Britten and Peter Maxwell Davies, among others.

Classic FM, August 2006

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David Denton
The Strad, August 2006

The young John Ireland first came to public attention in 1906 with the critically acclaimed premiere of his Phantasie Trio, and in later life he marked this work as the start of his career by destroying previous compositions. Fortunately he spared the two string quartets written in 1897 when he was 18 and which he described as his 'scholarship' pieces.

Musically they are of mixed parentage, Brahms being the major influence, though flowing through both scores we have the English pastoral scene, while the rustic energy of the first quartet’s finale finds a precursor of Vaughan Williams. Only six months separated the two scores, yet in the second there is a much greater desire for structural adventure and to explore the interplay of instrumental colours. The jagged third-movement Scherzo leads to an imposing and extended theme and variations, with a solo status shared among the members of the quartet as the work progresses. All very pleasing, but without any hint of the composer that was to emerge in such works as the radiantly beautiful The Holy Boy, written in 1918.

The Maggini Quartet continues its ongoing exploration of British string quartets, playing such rarely heard music with a conviction and spontaneity that would suggest it is part of its normal repertory. Balance between instruments is impeccable, allowing much inner detail to emerge that serves the music well. This is much helped by the clarity of the recording, though some may find it a little too dry and close to the performers.

Michael Cookson
MusicWeb International, August 2006

John Ireland was born in Bowdon, Cheshire in England to literary parents. He entered the Royal College of Music (RCM) at the age of fourteen in 1893 where his teachers included Frederick Cliffe for piano, Walter Parratt for organ and Charles Stanford for composition.

During the first decade of the twentieth century Ireland worked as an organist, choirmaster and pianist, and established his name as a composer with works like the Phantasie Trio (1906). The impact of the Second Violin Sonata (1915-17) at its première in 1917 made Ireland a national figure overnight and within 24 hours of its publication all copies had been sold. Ireland destroyed almost all of his student works, with the exception of the two string quartets that were published posthumously. From 1923 to 1939 he taught at the RCM where his pupils included Britten.

Many aspects of Ireland the man are mirrored in his music. His lonely, shy personality had its roots in an unhappy childhood and this perhaps accounts for the melancholy strain in his music. Ireland’s primary inspirations were England’s heritage, its poetry and its landscapes.

The twoquartets date from his student years at the RCM. Although his first and second subjects were piano and organ, Ireland harboured ambitions as a composer, and particularly wanted to study with his idol, the eminent and irascible Stanford. Apparently the firstquartetwas intended as a work which would impress Stanford to take on Ireland as one of his pupils. It was completed in March 1897 and was supposedly rejected by Stanford as, “Dull as ditchwater, m' bhoy”. Stanford, however, subsequently arranged for a group of students to perform it and Ireland was encouraged by the praise given by the influential Director of the RCM, Sir Hubert Parry. Ireland referred to both the first quartet and the second quartet completed the following September, as RCM scholarship pieces. In the event, the result was success since Ireland was awarded a four-year scholarship to study with his hero.

For all their assured writing for the medium, Ireland's two quartetsshow not a trace of the mature composer's personal voice; their models are often said to be Beethoven and Brahms. Brahms died the month after Ireland completed the quartet and was viewed by the young composer as a giant amongst contemporary figures. His music was also especially admired by Stanford.

In the excellent booklet notes to this Naxos release Andrew Burn provides detailed and informative descriptions of the two quartets. Given Ireland's idiomatic if unmemorable writing for the string quartet, it is a shame that he never returned to the medium in his maturity. Consequently, the only work for string quartet from his main career is an arrangement, made in 1941, of the third of his Four Preludes for piano, ‘The Holy Boy’,originally composed on Christmas Day 1913. With its wistful melody and subtle shifts of harmony it is quintessential Ireland. Ostensibly this is his 'Carol of the Nativity', as Ireland later embellished the title: a lullaby for the Christ child. The Holy Boy became one of Ireland's most popular works and over the years he made several versions for different instruments and forces.

John Ireland’s string quartets have been poorly served in the catalogues. In 1999 the Holywell Ensemble came along and released a recording of themand of the The Holy Boy on ASV CDDCA1017. The performances, although serviceable, are rather on the heavy side and have been accurately described as “sturdy”. Now the award-winning and popular champions of English Music, the Magginis, turn their attention to these same works. They offer well-turned performances, full of freshness and enthusiasm. The excellent players cannot make these scores better than they are but they try manfully to inject some vitality into these rather disappointing juvenile pieces. I detect so much in these scores that are derivative of the sound-worlds of Mendelssohn, Schubert and Schumann, and I believe far less of Beethoven, Brahms and Dvorák, as so often claimed.

Inadvertently, I ended up with two sets of this Naxos release and felt rather put-out when a friend politely declined my offer of a complimentary copy, stating that he already had a recording by the Holywell Ensemble on ASV. If I had been handing out a gratis copy of, say, Beethoven or Mozart Quartets, I’m sure he would have accepted with gratitude. Having now heard these Ireland scores I understand why few will want another version of these youthful works. I believe the market for these quartets is limited as surely those that want them will probably already have the ASV disc.

Hopefully the Maggini Quartet will now look to record the chamber music of Sir Hubert Parry. There are amongst Parry’s mature works a String Quartet in G from 1880 and a String Quintet in E flat from 1909 which are crying out for modern recordings.

Julian Haylock
Classic FM, July 2006

The recent resurgence of interest in Ireland's music has unearthed a series of unaccountably neglected gems. Although both quartets are early works dating from his student years at the Royal College of Music, the assessment of his then teacher, Stanford - 'dull as ditchwater, m'boy' seems unduly harsh in the light of such obvious flair and invention. The Holywell Ensemble first alerted us to the music's merits in the late 1990s (ASV), but the Maggini Quartet's performances are just that extra bit special - affectionately phrased, subtly voiced and sounding as though they believe in every note.

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