Mark Bebbington

The Piano Music of John Ireland, Vol. 1

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Numerous recordings of the piano music of John Ireland have begun to appear after years of neglect, and this is an extremely welcome development. Ireland fit none, and all, of the categories into which the music of the first third of the twentieth century is placed. Sometimes he is grouped with the English Impressionists, but his music, much of it for piano, embraced Romantic virtuosity, and the big three-movement Piano Sonata recorded here has a thorny quality, with deep working-out of motivic details, that bespeaks a deep engagement with Beethoven and Brahms. Ireland could be pleasant and colorful in his short, programmatic piano pieces, but he was also capable of piercing despair, quite effectively captured here by pianist Mark Bebbington in the 10-minute Ballade. The buyer has the choice of several pianists who have traversed much of Ireland's work, and one of them, Alan Rowlands, had the advantage of studying with the aging composer himself in the 1950s. There is much to recommend this disc, however, and the list begins with really superb engineering in the symphony hall in Birmingham, England. A short piece like The Island Spell (track 4) from the three Decorations (1915) shows Ireland's art in compact form, with Impressionist textures deployed in such a way that they have clear structural implications. Pianist and engineer collaborate beautifully here: the cascading arpeggios take on a hypnotic quality that is simultaneously disturbed and deepened by new textures that intrude on the music. It's a small psychological masterpiece, and it's matched by many other equally nice moments on the disc. In the Piano Sonata and the Ballade it's possible to imagine performances more intense and Lisztian than the ones Bebbington gives them here, but the total environment here is superior.

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