On record: Sinfonia of London / John Wilson – John Ireland: Orchestral Works (Chandos)

John Ireland
Satyricon Overture (1946)
A Downland Suite [1941, arr. Ireland (movements 2 & 3), Geoffrey Bush (1 & 4)]
Mai-Dun (1920-21)
The Forgotten Rite (1913)
A London Overture (1936)
The Holy Boy (1941, Ireland’s string orchestra arrangement)
Epic March (1941-42)

Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Chandos CHAN 5293 [67’16”]
Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineer Ralph Couzens

Recorded 26-28 August 2021, Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

John Ireland is a well-respected composer in the scope of early 20th century British music. Often writing in shorter forms, his songs and piano music present a fine body of work and enable the listener to get to know this bittersweet musical personality. Meanwhile the more substantial chamber music shows Ireland was capable of handling larger structures.

A good way in to the composer’s output is through his orchestral music, and there are several attractive anthologies already available – from Sir Adrian Boult and from John Wilson himself, conducting the Halle Orchestra. Wilson returns to the composer here in the company of the Sinfonia of London to give us a collection of suites, tone poems and pictorial overtures. Perhaps inevitably, The Holy Boy – Ireland’s best-known song – is also included, in its arrangement for string orchestra.

What’s the music like?

Ireland’s music is simultaneously elusive, heartfelt, melodic and elegiac – and these fine performances get right to the heart of his thinking.

Wilson and his charges begin with a good-natured account of the overture Satyricon, enjoying its syncopations before a smooth and elegant second theme from the strings, who impress with their command of the longer phrases. They come to the fore in a co-arranged version of A Downland Suite, two movements each recast from the brass band original by Ireland himself an Geoffrey Bush. This is music of silvery tone and generous melodic content, with an incisive Prelude, solemn Elegy, poised Minuet and a crisp, upward looking Rondo. Contrasting this with Mai-Dun is a good move, revealing Ireland’s colourful orchestrations and some lavish harmonies while digging deep emotionally.

The Forgotten Rite, a prelude serving as Ireland’s first published orchestral work. also has deep underlying emotion, while The Holy Boy – Ireland’s favoured song – is more sentimental but not excessively so. Bigger sounds are promised by the Epic March, which certainly lives up to its billing and stature, and A London Overture, which may have less bustle than its Elgarian counterpart (Cockaigne) but creates a studied portrait of the English capital city.

Does it all work?

Yes. Wilson has an innate understanding of this music, and with top class performances and clarity of recording there is little if anything to dispute here. The bigger pieces fare particularly well, with a crisply deployed Epic March and a detailed account of A London Overture that has particular insight in the work’s quieter moment. The Sinfonia’s account of A Downland Suite is subtle but affecting, with a gently dancing Minuet and a thoughtful Elegy that tugs softly but insistently at the heartstrings.

Perhaps the most successful piece is Mai-Dun, exploring some glorious shades of colour and texture, while the dappled sunlight of The Forgotten Rite is also exquisitely painted.

Is it recommended?

Yes – even in comparison with the Halle anthology, which shares much of the repertoire recorded here – though that one includes the suite The Overlanders rather than A Downland Suite. Either are very fine collections, but this Sinfonia of London set of recordings is extremely well recorded and performed with rare insight, capturing the composer’s personality to a tee.

Listen

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You can view buying options for this release – on download or SACD – on the Chandos website

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