Ireland: Songs

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COMPOSERS: Ireland
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Songs
PERFORMER: Lisa Milne (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Christopher Maltman (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67261-62
This is a fine celebration of 35 song-writing years of John Ireland’s life: 68 of the songs written between 1903 and 1938 appear on two generous discs. So why are so few of them familiar? Ireland as songwriter was eclipsed by the brilliance of his pupil Benjamin Britten, for one thing. And there is a continuing resistance to what we hear as the enervating sentimentality and all-pervasive melancholy of so many period pieces, such as Ireland’s settings of Arthur Symons, Rupert Brooke – even Thomas Hardy. Christopher Maltman here meets their moods courageously and head-on; but after so many slow-moving songs the ear is grateful for the heys and the hos of soprano Lisa Milne in ‘I have 12 oxen’, and the simple tenderness of her beautifully sung little Christina Rossetti cycle, Mother and Child.

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But what is special about John Ireland is the understanding, art and economy with which he sets the English language. John Mark Ainsley, in particular, captures the cunning of Ireland’s syllable by syllable inflection, pointing the subtle pulses of his Housman songs and of his ‘The Salley Gardens’ – both of them more oblique than their better known counterparts by Butterworth and Britten. And the often telling distillation of Ireland’s responses to poetry within his piano accompaniments is recreated shrewdly by Graham Johnson.

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Andrew Green’s own illuminating biographical notes quote William Mann’s assessment of Ireland as the most important English songwriter between Purcell and Britten. Perhaps these discs will at last bring the best of his song back into live recital and thereby rehabilitate some forgotten turn-of-the-century poetry as well. Hilary Finch