Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Earth's Call - songs by John Ireland

Earth's Call - April Fredrick - SOMM
John Ireland Mother and Child, Songs Sacred and Profane, Three Songs to Poems by Thomas Hardy; April Fredrick, Mark Bebbington; SOMM Recordings
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 2 2015
Star rating: 4.0

One-disc exploration of some of Ireland's fine but neglected songs.

The composer John Ireland wrote a significant body of songs spanning some 35 year of his composing life but only a handful are well known. This disc on SOMM Recordings from the young soprano April Fredrick, accompanied by Mark Bebbington, brings together a selection both well known and lesser known, representing a little under 50% of Ireland's output. On this disc April Fredrick and Mark Bebbington perform the song cycles Mother and Child, Songs Sacred and Profane and Three Songs to Poems by Thomas Hardy, alongside individual songs.

April Frederick
April Frederick
Despite a troubled childhood (Ireland's father, a newspaper editor, was over 70 when he was born), he took from his upbringing a love and knowledge of literature and it is as a setter of poetry that Ireland is best, and justly, known. His selections ranged widely, and it is clear from the songs that the words came paramount, despite the enormous melodic felicity of his talent. That is what makes his popular songs so much so; Ireland had the ability to harness a rattling good tune in the service of the words.

Ireland's upbringing left him with another legacy, a profoundly repressed sexuality. Quite what he was repressing, no-one is sure. Certainly his attempts at marriage and female relations were quite disastrous and he was a very homo-social man, and I understand that his surviving correspondence with his friend Rev. Kenneth Thompson (1904-1991) does refer to the attractions of choir boys. But, this repression seems to have had an outlet in his music, and passion is rarely absent in one way or another. Not for the first time, a composer's troubled private life leaves us all the more the benefitters.

Earth's Call (1918) is subtitled A Sylvan Rhapsody and sets a sonnet by Harold Monro, with a big piano part equalling that of the voice. A passionate English rhapsody, there is a magical pause in the middle and April Fredrick sings the whole with a lovely lyric voice with an appealing timbre. Mark Bebbington is fully her partner, though I took some time to warm to the piano's slightly glassy sound.

When I am Dead, my Dearest (1924) sets a poem by Christina Rosetti and Ireland's quite direct setting conveys the poetry of the words, with April Fredrick singing with fine diction.

Mother and Child is a song cycle from 1918 setting poems by Christina Rosetti and dedicated to his sister who was a recent mother. The group of eight short, quite straightforward songs start with a newborn child and work their way through until the final ones which are Death-parting and The Garland which struck me as rather gloomy for a new mother!  By turns touching and maudlin, the beautiful simplicity of Ireland's vocal line, sympathetically sung by April Fredrick, more than mitigates the sentimentality of the words.

Two Songs of 1920 (The Trellis and My True Love Hath My Heart) set words by Aldous Huxley and Sir Philip Sydney.  The first, the Huxley setting, is a complex, rather lyrically free vocal line with an intense piano part. The whole veers strongly towards lyrical rhapsody. Whilst the Sidney setting
 has quite a direct vocal line offset by rich chords in the piano, the whole striking a note of passion which the CD booklet notes aptly describe as heart on sleeve.

Three Song of 1928, set Emily Bronte, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Anon. Love and Friendship has a certain folk-ish appeal, Friendship in Misfortune is bleaker and here sung by April Fredrick with wonderfully expressive firm tone. The One Hope is a darkly complex and chromatic song, rather longer than the other two.

The Sacred Flame  (1918) sets Mary Coleridge and is powerful stuff, with chromatic harmonies surrounding the vocal line. By now, the listener might develop a certain familiarity with Ireland's construction methods, and certainly these suggest some of the reasons for the song's popularity. Ireland was gifted with the ability to write memorable melodies which he combined with a sympathy for the poetry involved. But rarely does he take these vocal lines and embed them in rich piano textures, the piano us usually discreet to enable the singer to convey both words and music. The richness and complexity in the piano is often place in interruptions, interludes, introductions and postludes. The result is highly complex and richly rewarding to listen to, but also showing great sympathy for the singer and their song.

Two Songs of 1928 (Tryst and During Music) set words by Arthur Symons and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Symons' Tryst is austere and not a little bleak, with the voice often unaccompanied and the piano restricted to interludes but the whole builds in power. The Rosetti setting has a more varied vocal line, with a lovely rhapsodic feel.

Tutto e Sciolto sets James Joyce and comes from a book of Joyce settings by different composers assembled in 1933 as a tribute to Joyce. The title is in fact a tenor aria from Bellini's La Sonnambula but Ireland's setting does not seem to reference that. Instead, it is a a rather unusual melody with some beautifully shaped vocals from Fredrick. The Three Ravens is an arrangement from 1920 of an folk ballad, given a haunting melancholy cast.

Songs Sacred and Profane is a cycle premiered in 1933, with words by Alice Meynell, Sylvia Townsend Warner and WB Yates. The Advent is an intense and sombre meditation on Christ's birth, whilst Hymn for a Child introduces 12 year old Jesus debating with his elders in the Temple, in a song which has a nice swagger and an element of wit in the piano. With the love song My Fair we turn profane, and April Fredrick's touching vocals are complemented by Mark Bebbington's rich piano. The Salley Gardens is the well known text, here to a rather lovely tune. The Soldier's Return starts as perky march, though there is a sting in the tail as we realise that he has returned as a ghost. Finally, The Scapegoat with its substantial piano introduction.

Three Songs to Poems of Thomas Hardy starts with  Summer Schemes, a very word based setting which develops into quite a complex yet lyrical song. By contrast Her Song (which may by a soliloquy by Hardy's wife's ghost) is quite a folk-ish ballad, and Weathers has a nice lilt and urgency in the performance.

Love is a Sickness sets Samuel Daniels, in a lyrically passionate song. Variations on Cadet Rousselle was first performed in 1919 and in fact has music by Arnold Bax, Frank Bidge, Eugene Goossens and John Ireland with each harmonising a verse of a French satiric song! The result is perky and catchy, as is the final song J'ai douze boeufs which Ireland set in both English and French.

This is a highly enjoyable recital and provides a neat foray into Ireland's songs for those for whom they are mainly unfamiliar. Throughout April Fredrick sings with admirable diction and a lovely lyric sympathy for Ireland's music, always finely partnered by Mark Bebbington.

John Ireland (1879-1962) - Earth's Call (1918) [5.14]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - When I am Dead, My Dearest (1924) [1.43]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - Mother and Child (1918) [9.23]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - Two Songs (1920) [4.33]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - Three Songs (1928) [8.21]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - The Sacred Flame (1918) [2.05]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - Two Songs (1928) [6.23]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - Tutto e Sciolto (1933) [1.58]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - The Three Ravens (1920) [3.42]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - Songs Sacred and Profane (1933) [12.58]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - Three Songs to Poems by Thomas Hardy [6.52]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - Love is a Sickness [2.15]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - Variations on Cadet Rousselle (1919) [6.10]
John Ireland (1879-1962) - J'ai douze boeufs (1918) [2.32]
April Fredrick (soprano)
Mark Bebbington (piano)
Recorded at Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 28, 29 April 2012
SOMM SOMMCD0137 1 Cd [74.26]

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