Saturday, July 14, 2012

John Ireland in Chelsea

Was the composer John Ireland a petit maître? True, his songs and piano pieces are the best of him, and he composed no operas or symphonies. But there is nothing small about some of his marvellous chamber music: his Cello Sonata, played on the last evening (25th June) of a mini-festival of Ireland and Co, mostly in St. Luke's Church, Chelsea, where he was organist for twenty years, is a big-boned piece, well structured, written in 1924 in a mood of grieving and raging about the Great War, lyrical, richly chromatic and demanding virtuosity from its performers Julian Lloyd Webber and John Lenehan, and concentration from its audience. It got both. The work that followed, the second of Ireland's Piano Trios, is the achievement of a master, not a petit maître.

Another master work was his substantial number for piano, not quite finished but a great piece, typical Ireland, but also at times, influenced by Ravel and even looking forward to Messiaen. It is on a big scale and has been titled Ballade of London Nights but could be called a sonata in one movement. It was scaled and conquered with some fine pianism by Maria Marchant. There was also music excellently played by the East London Brass and good singing from the Addison Singers conducted by the Festival director, David Wordsworth. Music was also included in the other concerts by Ireland's teacher, Stanford and his pupils, one of which was by Ireland's friend, Alan Bush. A work by the latter was his unaccompanied choral piece which Bush wrote describing and lamenting Lidice a Czech village which the Germans completely erased as reprisal for the assassination of the Nazi boss, Heydrich. It was first performed in Czechoslovakia on the actual site where Lidice had been (I was a temporary member of the Workers Music Association so the sad music brought back memories).
Many songs were sung superbly by Roderick Williams, the baritone whose singing and artistry are at their peak now. And of course he included that memorable, popular and fine song Sea Fever. It remains Ireland's best known piece, as is Stanford's haunting Bluebird in his oeuvre.
I don't suppose Ireland's music will ever be as popular or as much played as the big boys of British music but there will always be some who will savour much of his oeuvre. This festival was a welcome remainder of a true maître, petit or grand.

No comments: