Product Description

CDE 84528
Susanne Stanzeleit - violin
Robin Ireland - viola
Louise Williams - viola
Bernard Gregor-Smith - cello


Sound Sample
PAIRINGS I, for viola and cello March 2000

Prelude - Etude - Limbo - Folk melody - Soliloquies I and II - Chase - Reverie - Fanfare

I discovered the composer in me in 1987, when I committed myself, for reasons I no longer remember, to write a piece for solo viola to be included in a concert at Manchester University. The piece, called Mirages, emerged surprisingly effortlessly through improvising into a tape recorder, and this prompted me to attempt a Duo for viola and cello the following year. The combination of instruments has few precedents, one of them being Beethoven’s Eyeglass Duo, which ranks high among his least memorable works. In the String Quartet repertoire, however, there are numerous passages where the viola and cello are prominently and pleasurable paired, and it was my enjoyment of these that led to the idea of Pairings I. Having no training or pretensions as a composer, my aims were modest. My one area of expertise was an intimate knowledge of the instruments themselves, and I used this as the starting point for the Duo, writing a sequence of short, contrasted character pieces. My idea was to exploit the sonorities and characters of the two instruments in as varied a way as possible, and to write music which, though not easy to play, would be easy to listen to. I was unashamedly eclectic in allowing musical influences into the piece, and this was in the back of my mind when I chose the title Pairings, with its double entendre if spelled without its first “i”.

While I have not sought to be original, I have also not set out to borrow from other composers. Rather I would say that my musical imagination is the sum of all that I have played, listened to and loved, and I have allowed it free range as and how it reveals itself.

Pairings I opens with a Prelude which presents the viola and cello in full, self-glorying sonority, climbing ever higher against the roots of their lowest open strings. It is based on the interval of a fifth, to which the strings are tuned, and which all the pieces in the work build on. The second piece, Etude, slips up a semitone to the key of C sharp minor, and springs from a famous passage in octaves for the viola and cello in the last movement of Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet, which is directly quoted about halfway through. The piece is muted, furtive and scurrying. Limbo goes a step further in the direction of disembodiment, exploring an eerie realm of low chords sliding about in parallel motion, polarised by passages of high harmonics and aimless descents. Folk Melody returns us to earth and simplicity in the manner of Bartok’s transcriptions of Eastern European folk tunes. Two solo Soliloquies follow, the first being an improvisation on ideas from Etude and Limbo, the second anticipating the music of the final piece, Fanfare. Chase is a kind of improvisatory scherzo, calling for the two instruments to engage in a teasing dialogue. In a brief moment of stillness and togetherness, they settle on a chord which is adopted in the next piece, Reverie, which pays unashamed homage to Messiaen both harmonically and, I hope, in spirit. The last piece, Fanfare, is virtuosic, especially for the cello, and highly improvisatory.

PAIRINGS II, for 2 violasFebruary 2002

Fantasia - Scherzo - Adagietto - Canon - Ostinato

After the viola and cello piece, the pairing of two violas was an obvious next step. The repertoire for this combination is even more sparse than for viola and cello. Frank Bridge composed a short piece called Lament for himself to play with Lionel Tertis, and more recently George Benjamin has written a superb work titled Viola-Viola which has been enthusiastically performed by some of the world’s leading violists. Pairings II sets out to celebrate the viola, and it represents quite a large step forward from Pairings I in its ambitions, both formally and in dramatic content. Writing for two of the same instrument raises new questions around whether and how to differentiate the two voices; in the first movement I give the violas a different character in their solos, and set up other types of polarity within the structure of the music, especially between tonalities.The inclusion of a canon for the fourth movement suggested itself as another kind of answer. For the most part, though, the combined sound of the two violas provides its own justification!

The first movement, Fantasia, opens brightly where Pairings I left off, with a fanfare. The music is built on an obsession with combined tonalities and the different responses they evoke. The opening fanfare combines C and G major, and has a joyful character. After an early and eerie interruption, the fanfare returns, combining C and F sharp major, which has a whiff of the diabolical excitement traditionally associated with the diminished fifth or tritone. This fanfare evokes a more impassioned response, which leads on to the central section of the movement, taking the form of solo “improvisations” for each viola, over a background of arpeggiated chords which alternate between keys. The intensity builds as the violas join together with fragments of their improvisations, and the tensions of the movement are eventually resolved in a passage where the two violas create a shimmering texture of arpeggiated chords rising and falling in Chopinesque harmonies.

The Scherzo continues the obsession with the diminished fifth, and in this movement the devil has the last word. The music is fragmentary, progressing through a succession of ideas and reactions to them. It has an element of clowning to it, with moments of pathos and nostalgia (in the form of a kind of Viennese tea-shop tune), and with irreverent, tongue-in-cheek references to the famous motifs from Tristan and Isolde and from Petrushka - imaginative leaps conjured by harmonic association.

In the Adagietto, the polarities of the first two movements dissolve into a world of circling, bitter-sweet harmonies, and for the first time, of sustained melody. Despite the limited forces of two violas, there is a hint of Mahler about the music.

The fourth movement explores the effects of writing a canon on a theme with complicated rhythms. The results range from playfulness to mild chaos as the two instruments struggle to maintain the integrity of their conflicting rhythms. The canon is subjected to many tricks of the contrapuntalist’s trade, including being presented upside down, backwards, at different speeds and at different melodic intervals between the two violas, including the ‘diabolical’ diminished fifth. At the end, the theme finds an unexpected companion in the old mediaeval folksong “Sumer is icumen in”, itself a canon, and this ushers in a last movement which also harks back to a simpler and older, modal harmonic language.

Ostinato alternates bars in two different keys, D and C, in a gentle, rocking manner a long way removed from the tensions of combined tonalities earlier in the piece. The diminished fifth is finally exorcised, though a certain piquancy is still present at times in the use of false relations (a technique much used by Renaissance composers which permits passing dissonances when melodic lines cross each others’ paths). As the music builds to a climax, it sheds the tonality of D in favour of C, and the movement ends where the first movement began, in C major, with the celebratory addition of a G major chord .

PAIRINGS III, for violin and viola February 2003

Convergence - Outrage - Chorale - Dance

Pairings III constitutes a further step in harmonic language, structure and virtuosity. Above all, it has a more developed dimension of spiritual and psychological drama.

Convergence is about the meeting and dialogue between disparate elements, notably the “airy” disembodied opening of the violin and the “earthy” response it evokes in the viola, and their transformation to a “fiery” conclusion. An earlier point of convergence, on a unison C, led only to sterile hyperactivity, evoking an angry interruption that served to redirect the music towards an attempt at something more transcendent. In this process, the idea of a convergence of dissonance and consonance is important; the consonant harmonic underpinning seeks to integrate as much dissonance as possible without losing its essential nature, or its function of resolution.

Outrage speaks largely for itself, picking up on the angry interruption from the first movement and developing it into a full-scale protest at the transcience of the first movement’s higher attainment. The angry music does, however, find an opening for a lighter-hearted middle section before returning with a vengeance. The dissonant chord which forms the basis of the movement, is actually built out of consonant thirds. As this chord shifts up and down chromatically, it traces the outline of three composers’ mottos at moments of climax, Bach’s and Shostakovich’s in the form of the musical motifs they created from their names (BACH and DSCH, where H is the German notation of B, and S or Es of our Eb), and Beethoven’s in the first four notes of the descending harmonic minor scale which obsessed him throughout his late string quartets. These mottos suggested themselves because of their chromatic instability and their close similarity to one another. The basic idea for the music of Outrage came from the extraordinary movement in Hindemith’s Sonata Op.25 for solo viola, marked, uniquely, with a speed of crotchet = 640(per minute), and with the advice that “beauty of tone is of secondary consideration”!

A sad, Bartokian transitional passage leads to the theme of the slow movement, Chorale, which takes the form of a 16 bar progression of simple intervals moving in unexpected directions, which is then improvised above and built upon in various ways. The music moves, subtly for the most part, between states of varying emotional detachment and involvement, ending with a disembodied and etherial song for the violin at the top of its register. The chorale itself , emerging at the centre of the movement, is for me the crux of the whole piece.

Where the first movement pursued a transcendental conclusion, this last movement, Dance, is content to stay rooted in the earth, albeit with feet flying. Both this and the preceding movement undoubtedly owe a lot to Bartok, whose music I love. The Eastern-European type of folk melody which forms the basis of the movement is built on an eight-note scale: E Fsharp G A Bb C Db Eb . It gives rise to a tonality which is fundamentally consonant, but laced with dissonance. Some of the ideas from the first two movements find their way into this movement, along with their striving and struggle, but they are eventually silenced by a return of the chorale, and the dance sees us out.


i) Parade ~ ii) Jesting ~ iii) Relinquishing ~iv) Last Orders

Fantasia on Sheffield was commissioned by the University of Sheffield Convocation to mark the centenary of the founding of Sheffield University, with the stipulation that it be celebratory in character (a wise precaution with a viola-player composer) and of a level of difficulty that could be tackled by a good student quartet. To these stipulations I added my own: the piece should include some special reference to Sheffield, be written to suit the Lindsays and our style of playing, and at some point reflect my feelings about our imminent retirement as a quartet. It was an alarming honour to find myself writing our final new piece.

The title, Fantasia on Sheffield, relates chiefly to the first movement, Parade. I subjected the word “Sheffield” to the time-honoured procedure of substituting notes for letters, with the help of the German system of notation and of Solfège (do, re, mi, etc.).

The resulting “melody” pleased me, since it suggested several possible keys, and the nearest thing to a consistent feature in my style of composition is an obsession with ambivalence of key. The “Sheffield” theme cannot make up its mind whether it is in E, F, C or D. In the end, D major triumphs.

The first movement opens with a fanfare, after which “Sheffield” introduces itself, coyly at first, but soon vigorously. It is followed by the first of four solo “breaks”, one for each player, accompanied by obsessive, minimalist nuggets of “Sheffield”, sometimes presented upside down or backwards, or allowed anarchic liberties. In between, variations on the fanfare return, and after a particularly chaotic one, a slow waltz emerges, and in it the ambivalence of key is taken to extremes: “Sheffield” is contrived to fit with the waltz accompaniment as it passes chromatically through twelve keys in quick succession, eventually disintegrating into a Schnittke-like canonic melée. It is rescued by a united reappearance of the solos, through which “Sheffield” reasserts itself with ever-increasing grandeur and affirmative harmonisation.

The second movement, Jesting, is a scherzo in miniature, a foil for the self-importance of the first movement. It derives mainly from the second violin’s solo, which at one point, as in the scherzo of Pairings II, finds an irreverent connection with the famous “Tristan” motif. The music nonetheless has moments when fooling is set aside, or reveals something of more serious intent.

The slow movement, Relinquishing, is an elaboration of the Adagietto from Pairings II , which kept pushing itself forward in my mind to take on a new life in this work, where it is more expansive and rich in harmony. It provides the Quartet with its heart, and for the first time the music takes on a true singing voice and enters into a more intimate mode of expression.

The final movement, Last Orders, is an Irish Jig with a difference, and invokes a spirit of merrymaking suitable for an end-of-term celebration (or a centenary). “Sheffield”, a little disguised, finds its way back into the music, along with other recollections from earlier movements.

© Robin Ireland 2005

Robin Ireland was born in 1954, son of viola player Patrick Ireland and pianist Peggy Gray. He was a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral Choir School and read music at Cambridge University. After further study in America, he had a short spell as leader of the Las Palmas Symphony Orchestra. He subsequently became a founder member of Domus, which toured with its own portable concert hall as well as having great success in more conventional venues.

Robin is especially renowned as viola player of the Lindsay String Quartet, with whom he played for twenty years until the group’s decision to disband in July 2005. The Lindsays recorded nearly all the major quartet repertoire, gave numerous first performances of new works, including Tippett's fourth and fifth quartets, and were favourites with audiences around the world for the intensity and spontaneity of their playing. Robin is also an experienced soloist and has appeared with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Mozart Players. He has broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and has given many recitals, often featuring transcriptions for viola of Bach’s unaccompanied works for violin and cello.

In 1987, Robin composed his first piece of music, a work for solo viola. Since then, in the limited time available, composing has become an increasingly important part of his life, culminating in the creation of this CD.

Robin is a committed and enthusiastic teacher of viola. He was a part-time lecturer in Manchester University’s Music Department for 20 years, and has given talks and seminars in both Manchester and Sheffield. He is an experienced chamber music coach and masterclass tutor, and is skilled at leading groups experimenting with improvisation. As a writer, he has contributed to the BBC Music Magazine.

Robin plays on an Amati viola made in Cremona in 1630. He is married to Nerissa Kisdon, who is an Alexander Teacher. They have three sons. Further information at IRELAND PAIRINGS I, II, III  -  Quartet No. 1