John Lenehan / Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / John Wilson

John Ireland: Piano Concerto; Legend

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The Naxos label's ambitious traversal of the music of British composer John Ireland continues here with two superb works for piano and orchestra, rounded out with a miscellany of largely minor early piano music. The Piano Concerto in E flat major, written in 1930, can fairly be called one of the most romantic (not Romantic) works of the 20th century. It delightfully modifies the structure of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 ("Emperor"), with which its three movements share a key scheme. The structure is pushed away from heroic struggle and toward passion and lyricism, with the slow movement exemplifying a love dialogue and the finale exploding in exuberance with added percussion and brass; the textures and tonalities throughout might have been influenced by Prokofiev, but the effect is purely Ireland's own. Also attractive is the Legend for piano and orchestra of 1933, premiered by pianist Helen Perkin, who had been the object and dedicatee of the piano concerto. (The creative relationship soured after she married a wealthy architect.) The Legend has a detailed program: it depicts a walk through the Sussex countryside during which the composer encountered a medieval lepers' colony and then believed he saw a group of children wearing white clothes, dancing. He described this apparition in a letter to a writer friend, who answered with a postcard reading, "So you've seen them too." In the event, the music depicting the children is rather generic, but the dark, modal passages Ireland assigns to the leper colony are uniquely powerful. The small piano works that round out the album are interesting mostly as early examples of the British pastoral impulse, but Ireland specialist John Lenehan's tuneful performance of the piano concerto, with fine backing from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under John Wilson, catches the work's somehow highly personal sense of enthusiasm and is well worth the price of admission.

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