It is probably fair to say that our collective image of British composers in the first third of the twentieth century is of folk-song collecting, morris-dancing alcoholics, and that is fairly accurate of many of the Warlock generation. But there always were other composers whose sense of Britishness took quite different forms, for instance, Cyril Scott, Frank Bridge, Arnold Bax and John Ireland. Ireland, in particular, remained a passionate Londoner and his response was to a landscape of British myth. For those whose attitude to Ireland’s music has been soured by the over-played, over-sentimental Holy Boy, please put aside your prejudice and listen to Mark Bebbington’s astonishing and revelatory performances in this new series of Ireland’s complete piano music from Somm. The most audible influences on Ireland’s musical language are Liszt and Ravel, and, in the earlier works—particularly the Island Spell of 1912—Debussy. Despite this, and the obvious technical difficulty of his music, his is not an overtly virtuoso style; he is as much himself in the modest April as the grandiose Ballade. A feature of Ireland’s piano works is that they are frequently cast as triptychs—not only are the Sonata and Sonatina three-movement works but the collections known as Decorations, London Pieces, Sarnia, the Sea Idyll, and Greenways, are all sets of three contrasted pieces. Do not be deceived by the sometimes dated titles, either: Ireland is not a cosy miniaturist, his works have gravity and breadth and are couched in a truly individual soundworld that is instantly recognisable. Even his shortest pieces cast long shadows.
In the past, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Eric Parkin and Desmond Wright had a monopoly on recordings of Ireland, so infrequently did one ever see other names associated with his music, and I have to confess that I always felt that few of those earlier recordings really did his music justice. In recent years, however, other pianists, notably Mark Bebbington, have turned their attention to Ireland’s repertoire, and the results are stunning—the music is revealed as full-blooded and highly expressive, and is slowly being rehabilitated to, if not the first rank, certainly the higher echelons of 20thcentury British music.
In Volume Two, Bebbington presents three of Ireland’s big Triptychs, and three of his most beloved pieces. Sarnia, the opening set, takes its name from the Channel Island of Guernsey where Ireland briefly lived in the 1930s, and the opening piece Le Catioroc, is one of his loveliest works—turbulent, with an undercurrent of the archaic and sinister. Of the other two smaller-scale sets, the Sea Idyll was written when Ireland was a student and retains a certain squareness of structure that is more pleasing than sensational, but Greenways, written in 1938, consists of three near-perfect arcadian miniatures. Bebbington finishes this edition with five smaller pieces: the Darkened Valley, arguably Ireland’s most characteristic and concise utterance; For Remembrance and Amberley Wild Brooks, another pair of entirely unforgettable miniatures; an early Villanella, originally an organ work; and a “free transcription” of Ireland’s song Love is a Sickness by the American modernist and Ireland admirer, Robert Helps.
Mark Bebbington’s performances are exactly what I had been impatiently waiting for: supremely adequate to the technical, expressive, and yet oblique demands of this still-underrated music: able to erupt or whisper where necessary, applying rubato in exact measure and only where appropriate, and yet holding the complex structures together effortlessly. In his hands truly beautiful and strong compositions are revealed, and there is still more to come—Bebbington has not yet recorded the turbulent Equinox, for instance. Watch this space.