British composer John Ireland's songs have a variable quality that some might call inconsistency but actually reflects an engagement with text and a deep familiarity with English poetry from the mid-nineteenth through Ireland's own early twentieth century. Ireland's basic idiom is tonal and conservative, but dissimilar to that of his contemporary Vaughan Williams; it is impressionistic, with an intimate quality and a quietly spiritual connection to nature in many of them. But within that basic idiom, more so than in his better-known chamber music, Ireland is flexible. Such works as Sea Fever (track 5), to a familiar poem by John Masefield, and If There Were Dreams to Sell (track 27) are close to parlor song, while I Have Twelve Oxen (track 14) is a light Renaissance-flavored setting, and a couple of songs to texts by Symbolist poet Arthur Symons ("a very dirty-minded man," complained the Pall Mall Gazette), Santa Chiara (Palm Sunday) and Tryst (In Fountain Court) (tracks 8 and 9), have an irregular, psychologically oriented relationship between the voice and piano parts. The centerpieces of the album are groups of settings of poems by A.E. Housman and Thomas Hardy. Anyone who loves those particular English poets will not fail to appreciate Ireland's settings: his melodic gift and economy of language combine into perfect representations of their terse, deeply pessimistic verses. The Naxos habit of relegating texts to its website is less annoying here than usual, for baritone Roderick Williams articulates the texts to the point of total intelligibility. His readings capture the inwardness and the hints of suppressed emotion in Ireland's songs, which are not as well known as they ought to be. This is a recommended introduction.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
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