BRIDGE: Phantasy / String Quartets Nos. 2 and 4 (Maggini Quartet/ Martin Roscoe) (Naxos: 8.557283)
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Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
String Quartet No. 2 Phantasy Quartet String Quartet No. 4
Frank Bridge studied violin and composition at theRoyal College of Music where he was a pupil ofStanford from 1899 to 1903. Apart from composition,his career embraced performance (he was the violist inseveral quartets, most notably the English StringQuartet), conducting (he frequently deputised for SirHenry Wood), and teaching (Britten being his bestknownpupil). Perhaps no other British composer of thefirst half of the century reveals such a stylistic journeyin his music. His early works, such as the First StringQuartet (1906), the Phantasy Piano Trio (1907) and theorchestral suite The Sea (1910-11), follow in the late-Romantic tradition bearing a kinship with Faure;subsequently, in the orchestral tone poem Summer(1914-5), for instance, Bridge comes close to the orbitof Delius. After the First World War, however, hismusic became intense and chromatic as in theScriabinesque Piano Sonata (1921-4). The radicallanguage of the sonata was pursued in his chamberworks of the 1920s, so that in the Third String Quartet(1926) Bridge rubs shoulders with the early works ofthe Second Viennese School. Also to this decade belongtwo orchestral masterpieces, Enter Spring (1927) andOration (1930). Finding little favour with public orcritics his late work, for example the Fourth StringQuartet (1934-8), languished, and despite Britten'sadvocacy it was not until the 1970s that Bridge'sremarkable legacy received the attention it deserved.
At the outset of his career Bridge established hisname through a series of chamber works in which hedemonstrated impeccable craftsmanship and a whollyidiomatic understanding of string instruments, with theviola, his own main instrument, frequently havingprominence. A further influence on the form of theseworks was the prizes instituted by Walter WilsonCobbett, an amateur musician whose interests werechamber music and the period of the Elizabethan andJacobean composers. In particular Cobbett wasinterested in the instrumental 'fantasy' or 'phantasy'form of that time in which several unrelated but variedsections formed the basis for an extended work. In 1905he established a prize for chamber compositions in onemovement and Bridge submitted several works forCobbett's competitions, winning first prize in 1907 and1915. What was significant though was that Bridgeadapted aspects of the phantasy form within subsequentcompositions, so that thematic unity within a work ofone or several movements became a hallmark of hiscompositions.
The Second String Quartet was composed in 1914-15 in response to Cobbett's fourth competition for thebest string quartet in either sonata form, suite orphantasy form. Entries were finally divided into thosewho wrote sonatas and those who wrote phantasies,with Bridge's quartet winning the former. The LondonString Quartet gave the premi?¿re in 1915 and the quartetmay be heard as a transitional work between Bridge'searly and later styles; there is a clear advance in itsharmonic language with an increased use ofchromaticism and motivic elements within the texturesto bind the work together. It is undoubtedly Bridge'sfirst chamber masterwork.
Without any preamble the first violin launches intothe main theme of the opening movement which dipsand rises in a lyrical contour and features triplets. Burstsof rhythmic energy follow, but these give way to anostalgic expansive second principal theme giveninitially to the viola to reveal its expressive range overoscillating triplets. A slow coda of pensive beauty basedon both main themes concludes the movement.
The degree to which phantasy form affected Bridge'sstructural thinking is apparent in the scherzo where anextended slow middle section is incorporated ratherthan a conventional trio. Thematic integration is alsoevident with triplets once again dominating thelandscape of the breezy, airy scherzo and spawning newideas which in turn become the main melody of theAndante con moto. This theme is also related to materialfrom Bridge's tone poem Summer which he interruptedcomposing in order to write the quartet. The finale is anarch structure, opening with a slow section in which thefirst movement's second theme is transformed.
Similarly the main themes of the Allegro vivace canboth be related to previous ideas. The pattering figurelike dappled light also bears similarity to the opening ofSummer and overall the music becomes more optimisticuntil in a master-stoke Bridge weaves in both themesfrom the first movement.
The Phantasy for piano quartet was Bridge's thirdwork cast in phantasy form, and was one of elevenworks for differing chamber forces commissioned byCobbett. Composed during 1909-10, it was dedicated toCobbett and given its premi?¿re by the Henkel PianoQuartet in 1911. In terms of Bridge's career it comestowards the end the early period when he was notventuring out of a late nineteenth-century harmoniclanguage. It is also one of the finest works that arose outof Cobbett's initiative, partly because its symmetricalarch structure brings a strong cohensive logic to itssequence of introduction and slow movement; scherzo,trio, scherzo; slow movement and coda.
The quartet opens with a passionate introductorygesture for the whole ensemble before the piano plays alyrical, undulating theme shot through with sadnesswhich forms the main idea of the opening section. It istaken up by the cello and leads to a warmer secondtheme that is constantly aspiring upwards andculminates in a quasi Brahmsian harmonic sequence. Apuckish scherzo follows. It scampers impishly along toreach with the trio the middle of the overall arch form ofthe quartet. Here the introductory ideas of the quartetreturn. The journey back begins with a recapitulation ofthe scherzo, then the introduction itself now truncatedand for cello alone. Second time around the slow musicis developed and rises to an ardent climax as the ideasare reviewed, before a tranquil coda brings the work toan end in the calm of the major key.
The Fourth String Quartet was dedicated toBridge's American friend and patroness, ElizabethSprague Coolidge. It was composed in 1937 with thepremi?¿re taking place in 1938, performed by theGordon String Quartet, at Mrs Coolidge's BerkshireFestival of Chamber Music in Massachusetts. The workfollows the developments Bridge had made in his ThirdQuartet in its use of chromatic dissonance; however, asthe Bridge scholar Anthony Payne has observed, itsformal structure has a more classical approach with aclear-cut sonata-form first movement, followed by aminuet and a rondo finale.
The opening movement embraces several swiftlychanging moods and directions, contrasting energy andtenderness. After a brief call to attention by the viola,the athletic principal theme is introduced on the firstviolin. Instructions to the players that pepper the scoresuch as 'agitato', 'frenetico' and 'impetuoso' give theclue to the character of the fast music. By contrast, thesecond main idea is an outburst of singing lyricism forthe viola. Bridge follows this opening drama not with aslow movement but one with an intermezzo-likequality. It is not, however, in the relaxed vein as theterm might suggest; instead it is a sinister minuet builtfrom the obsessive rhythm of the opening bar. Here is aworld of twilight shadows with the omnipresent rhythmoffset by outpourings of haunted melody frequentlyexploiting the dark hues of the viola. In the concludingrondo Bridge blows away the mood of the precedingmovement with music which proceeds by leaps andbounds and increasingly takes on a confident character.
Such is the integrated thematic quality of the wholework that allusions are made to the minuet's rhythm,and just before the final appearance of the rondo themeboth subjects of the first movement are worked into t