Ireland: Piano Concerto (CD review)
Also, Legend; First Rhapsody; Pastoral; Indian Summer; A Sea Idyll; Three Dances. John Lenehan, piano; John Wilson, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.572598.
I've sometimes wondered over the years why record companies regularly ignore many perfectly delightful, accessible pieces of music in favor of old warhorses or modern experiments. The Piano Concerto in E flat by English composer John Ireland (1879-1962) is a case in point. I can remember hearing only one other recording of it, a long time ago with Boult conducting, I believe, and liking it quite a lot. Yet, as with so many things over time, the memory fades, and until reviewing this new Naxos disc I had almost forgotten how charming the work is.
Ireland wrote the Piano Concerto in 1930 and dedicated it to his piano pupil Helen Perkin, a young woman who premiered the piece and with whom he apparently fell in love. He then began a second piano concerto, completing only the movement we find later on the disc, Legend, also dedicating it to Perkin. Unfortunately for Ireland, Perkin did not return his affections, subsequently marrying someone else, and Ireland withdrew both dedications. Kind of a sore loser, I suppose.
Anyway, the Piano Concerto exhibits Ireland's romantic impressionism, and as played by pianist John Lenehan, conductor John Wilson, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the music expresses good cheer, poetic yearning, and eloquent aspiration. Its three relatively brief movements move seamlessly from one to the next, the whole work essentially a love poem. The opening movement, marked "In tempo moderato," sets the tone for a piece that infuses a bit of Gershwin jazz with Brahmsian rhapsody. There is also a kind of free-spirited, freewheeling quality to the music making, nicely captured by Lenehan and the orchestra. The slow, middle section is really quite ravishing, a warmhearted duet between piano and players that clearly demonstrates the composer's fondness for Ms. Perkin, punctuated by an emphatic climax before leading directly into a final movement of much vitality.
Naxos couple five other works by Ireland to the Piano Concerto, and although they may not possess the same radiant distinction, they are worthy of a listen. Two of them, the early Pastoral and the later Indian Summer Naxos give world-première recordings.
The Legend for piano and orchestra (1933) comes next, and while Ireland may have intended it as a follow-up to his highly successful Piano Concerto, it is very different in mood. Instead of being cheerful and buoyant, it is rather dark, even gloomy, perhaps a musical picture of the West Sussex countryside he loved so much that he eventually retired there (in a converted windmill, no less). In any case, after its ominous beginnings, the work turns somewhat lighter, and Lenehan brings out the beauty in it.
The final pieces are for piano only, starting with Pastoral (1896), newly uncovered, a short piano work done when Ireland was still a student. The even shorter Indian Summer (1932) that follows is another landscape painting; A Sea Idyll in three movements is enchanting, with an air of Debussy about it; and the Three Dances that close the program are simple, bouncy, and bucolic in nature. Again, Lenehan does justice to all of the music.
One of the best recordings from Naxos I've heard in quite some time, they made it in the Music Room at Champs Hill, West Sussex, and at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, England, between 2007 and 2011. While the piano is well out in front of the orchestra on the two piano and orchestra pieces, the stage depth and stereo spread are impressive. The sound is perhaps a touch soft, yet probably no more so than one would find in a live performance, with a smooth, fairly dynamic response. At no time during the piano and orchestra recordings or in the piano solos is the sound ever edgy, harsh, or bright nor clouded or veiled. It is, in fact, just right for easy listening.
On a final note, I would point out the disc contains some seventy-seven minutes of music, a healthy dose for so low a price. Thank you, Naxos.