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.
With Volume Three we are presented with both over-familiar and unfamiliar repertoire, beginning with the 1915 Rhapsody, couched in Ireland’s earlier, 19th-century derived language. Initially one is a touch underwhelmed by the bluster, but quickly Ireland’s strong personality asserts itself and the work drives relentlessly throughout. The contrast could not be greater with the ensuing Two Pieces: February’s Child and Aubade, which epitomise his concerns, tenderness touched with regret, and dancelike abandon respectively. Bebbington next records the Four Preludes; his version of the third of which, the notorious Holy Boy, avoids maudlinness by allowing a gentle organ-like harmonic legato to underline the piece’s title. The remainder of the disc is given over to absolutely characteristic Ireland works, such as the lovely April (which the composer himself recorded), the posthumously-completed Ballade of London Nights, and the program ends with a student work, another muscular Rhapsody from 1906.
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.