BRIDGE: Piano Music, Vol. 1 (Ashley Wass) (Naxos: 8.557842)
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Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Piano Music, Vol. 1
Frank Bridge studiedviolin and composition at the Royal College of Music where he was a pupil of Stanfordfrom 1899 to 1903. Apart from composition his career embraced performance (hewas the violist of several quartets, most notably the English String Quartet),conducting (he frequently deputised for Sir Henry Wood), and teaching, BenjaminBritten being his most renowned pupil. No other British composer of the firsthalf of the twentieth century reveals such a stylistic journey in his music.
His early works, like the First String Quartet
(1906), the PhantasyPiano Trio
(1907), and the orchestral suite The Sea
(1910-11),follow in the late-Romantic tradition bearing a kinship with Brahms and Faure;subsequently, in the orchestral tone poem Summer
(1914), Bridge comesclose to the orbit of Delius. After the First World War, however, his music becameintense and chromatic as in the Scriabinesque Piano Sonata
(1921-4). Theradical language of the sonata was pursued in his chamber works of the 1920s, sothat in the Third String Quartet (
1926) Bridge rubs shoulders with theearly works of the Second Viennese School. Also to this decade belong twoorchestral masterpieces, Enter Spring
(1927), and Oration
forcello and orchestra (1930). These and later works, for instance, Phantasm
forpiano and orchestra (1931), and the overture Rebus
(1940) languished,finding little favour either with public or critics, and despite Britten's advocacy,it was not until the 1970s that Bridge's remarkable legacy began to receive theattention it deserved.
Bridge was also a fine pianist, and his contribution to soloworks for the instrument date primarily from the first two decades of hiscareer from 1900 onwards. Up to the First World War much of it was composed in responseto the demand for salon music, which was played by the many skilled amateurmusicians of that time, as well as for professional pianists to include in recitals.
The evocative titles chosen for pieces were often at the behest of publishersas a sales ploy. Overall Bridge's pieces are marked by his superb craftsmanshipand apart from Faure, Ravel and Debussy influence them too. Occasionally theyare related to larger works that were occupying the composer at the same time. Duringthe war years Bridge mainly composed smaller works, particularly for piano, aswell as songs, and this seems to be due, in part, to the anguish he felt at thedeath and destruction wrought by the conflict. (It is known that he was sodistressed by the war that he would wander the streets by himself at night,mulling over the horrors.) It was as if he could not muster the necessaryconcentration to work on extended pieces, as witnessed by the four-yeargestation period of the Cello Sonata
(1913-17). In addition his responseto the war also seems to have triggered a stylistic crisis in his music, and aneed to develop a more radical harmonic voice to express himself. The firstmajor manifestation of this new style was his most important solo work for piano,the Sonata
The suite, A Fairy Tale
(1917), gives no hint of the angstthat Bridge was feeling about the war. Indeed perhaps these 'once upon a time'evocations of the stock components of any fairy-tale were for him a means of escapefrom the times. The music for The Princess
is pert, carefree andgraceful, in contrast to the menacing, ungainly portrait of The Ogre
is music of dreamy enchantment with its cascading figure like the wavingof a wand. Finally, the debonair, heroic music of The Prince
suggeststhat the spell has been broken and that everyone lives happily ever after.
The trio of pieces that comprise The Hour Glass
(1919-20)form a particularly effective sequence built around images of transience.
Bridge's music, especially from the 1920s onwards, inhabits, at times, anocturnal world, one of shadows and half-lights as in Dusk
. Here fleetingwisps of melody and a melancholy phrase that turns in on itself evoke atwilight pall. The shimmering flight of The Dew Fairy
providestranslucent contrast, before darkness returns in the rolling waters of The MidnightTide
that brings to mind Debussy's La cathedrale engloutie
. It ebbsand flows from sombre chords that build to a dramatic climax as the pianist tumblesdown the piano in octaves like foam breaking over a wave. Over a hushedpedal-point the chords swell again to a further swirling outburst, beforesubsiding to a brooding conclusion.Miniature Pastorals
(1917) was the first of three sets under the same titleconceived as pieces for children which in their original edition wereaccompanied by line drawings by Margaret Kemp-Welch. In character they are inthe tradition of Schumann's Kinderszenen
and are cast in the manner ofBridge's salon music. The first dwells on a delicate rhythmic figure with arepeated note, which for Kemp-Welch suggested a girl dancing to a pipe playedby a boy in a tree. Her drawing for the second movement, a wistful waltz,suggests that the boy and girl have quarrelled, whilst in the last, reconciled,they stare up spellbound at some unseen wondrous sight in the branches of atree to music imbued with innocent charm.
The first two pieces of the Three Lyrics
were composedin 1921 and 1922 respectively and were published as Two Lyrics
, with TheHedgerow
added in June 1924, three months after the completion of the ground-breakingPiano Sonata
. Heart's Ease
harks back to Bridge's early salonmusic and is formed around a descending bell-like tinkling phrase in the trebleand the simple, but warm and reassuring, melodic fragment that follows. Towardsthe end there are some luscious harmonic twists before the tintinnabulationsare recalled to round off the piece. Dainty Rogue
is an ebullient, humorousscherzo marked by rapid changes in metre and bravura writing for theinstrument. The Hedgerow
is elusive in character with its rapidlychanging musical images and moods. It is far more chromatic in its harmony thaneither of the preceding pieces and reflects the stylistic developments Bridge achieved in the sonata.
The Three Pieces
(1912) are the earliest works includedhere. Of them Columbine
are in the style of Bridge'searly music. The former, a waltz, has the elegance of Edwardian salon musicwith just a hint of sentimentality, although at its climax it seems made ofsterner stuff, while the Minuet
was originally composed in 1901, and wassubstantially revised in 1912. Romance
is predominantly tender in mood, culminatingin two impassioned climaxes.
Composed in 1924 during the months immediately after thecompletion of the Piano Sonata
, the two pieces comprising In Autumn
aremajor achievements amongst Bridge's piano music. They clearly are written inthe wake of the harmonic world Bridge had established for himself in thesonata: the mood of Retrospect
is inward-looking, with bleak, leantextures and an extended sombre chromatic melody which gradually rises inexorablyto two dissonant climaxes. In a letter to his patron Elizabeth SpragueCoolidge, Bridge commented that he was particularly pleased with the piece. Itsfaster companion, Through the Eaves,
is a fleeting vision shot throughwith rustlings and furtive movements.
At the turn of the years 1913-14, Bridge conceived the ideaof writing a four-movement suite under the title of Four Characteristic Pieces
He later changed his mind, submitting just the first three pieces for publicationwith the title Three Poems