Irish Classical Recordings

Irish Classical Recordings

A review of Irish Classical Recordings: A Discography of Irish Art Music by Axel Klein.

Irish Classical Recordings: A Discography of Irish Art Music
Axel Klein
Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001, 264pp
ISBN 0313317429 $84.00 in US

Books on Irish classical music are so rare that the appearance of a volume such as this is a cause for celebration. And if champagne is to be opened then we might indulge in a magnum to reward Mr Klein’s diligence in creating such a comprehensive list of recordings. He remarks himself that he did not expect to find so much recorded music as to fill more than 200 pages, and indeed – until the recent projects of Marco Polo and Black Box to commit at least some of the 20th-century repertoire to disc – the quantity of Irish ‘art music’ available in any format could best be described as minimal. So while it was something of a surprise to find so lengthy a book, lest the champagne bubbles go to our heads I should note that this length is deceptive.

Firstly, Mr Klein lists works separately so that the same recording may appear in several guises. This is a perfectly sensible approach and provides a better indication of a given composer’s recordings, but it does obviously increase the length of the individual composer entry. Secondly, the list is markedly swollen by the inclusion of a few individuals whose works have been championed by the smaller British recording companies. Thus, Stanford’s entry runs to 31 pages, Charles Wood’s to 11 and Moeran’s to 10. Even Howard Ferguson’s notably slight œuvre embraces four pages of recordings. When it comes to other composers, whose careers perhaps lay exclusively within Ireland, the picture is not so rosy. Klein himself notes ‘the number of recordings under a name doesn’t necessarily say much about the importance of their creator’ and cites Aloys Fleischmann, Frederick May and Brian Boydell as examples. Here the tallies come to a total of two-and-a-half pages in all! The case of Ina Boyle (1889-1967) is worse still: not a single recording of this talented student of Vaughan Williams. And even where a discography is reasonably long, there has obviously been a tendency to record smaller-scale works – songs and chamber music particularly – at the expense of orchestral music.

It is also worth remarking that the existence of a recording does not mean that access to it will be easy or even possible. It’s all very well knowing that, for example, an arrangement for orchestra by Redmond Friel of An Cnocán Fraoich was recorded on a Gael-Linn LP around 1960, but obtaining a copy of it is another matter entirely. And one can only remain pessimistic about the possibility of anyone undertaking the remastering of such recordings while richer and more accessible back catalogues like the British Lyrita label remain to be salvaged. Within the present volume, for instance, Lyrita recordings of Moeran’s cello concerto and sonata as performed by Peers Coetmore are listed, but they remain unissued in any digital format. What chance then the LPs issued by the New Irish Recording Company (NIRC) in the 1970s? Perhaps the Contemporary Music Centre could examine the possibility of remastering older recordings to ensure that the undoubtedly scarce recording resources of Marco Polo and Black Box, for example, do not needlessly duplicate works already committed to disc?

There are of course some errors or omissions – what reference work would be complete without them? I will note only two. Completely omitted is a recording by Geraldine O’Grady and Charles Lynch of Ferguson and Moeran violin sonatas made by Irish EMI in 1975 (LEAF 7007). And a recording of Moeran’s song ‘The Merry Month of May’ (1925) is listed twice sung by Peter Pears, once accompanied by Benjamin Britten and once by Viola Tunnard. In fact, there was only one recording – that with Viola Tunnard, though the LP which contains the recording also features Tippett’s Songs for Ariel performed by Britten and Pears, which presumably explains the error.

I can only counterbalance such pedantry by observing that the book is clearly the product of a commendable amount of research and that the author usefully prefaces each composer entry with a short biographical note, making the work a sort of mini-dictionary as well as a discography. He has also included a short section of works by non-Irish composers on Irish themes or with Irish influences. Readers will probably be familiar with Berlioz’s Irlande or Beethoven’s arrangements of Irish songs; they may not be aware that the Swiss composer Frank Martin wrote a piano trio based on Irish airs, or that George Gershwin wrote an Irish Waltz. And I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Mendelssohn wrote a Fantasia on ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ at the tender age of sixteen. For such incidental pleasures one must thank Mr Klein and I hope that his book will be purchased promptly by libraries and also, one hopes, by the record companies who may note within it ample scope for future activities.

Published on 1 May 2002

Garret Cahill works in the Boole Library in University College, Cork.

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