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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Coronation March (1911) [6’46]
Summer (1914) [10’42]
Phantasm, for piano and orchestra (1927) [24’21]
There is a Willow Grows aslant a Brook (1927) [11’18]
Vignettes de danse (1938) [11’20]
Sir Roger de Coverley (A Christmas Dance) (1922) [4’41]
Howard Shelley (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
Recorded at Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Nov.28-29 2002
Bridge Orchestral Works Vol.3
CHANDOS CHAN 10112 [69’55]

 

I’ve begun to lose track of how many times in these columns (and elsewhere) reviewers have acknowledged the debt music lovers owe to Chandos and Richard Hickox. This ongoing Bridge series is just the latest in a long line of recording ventures that has garnered universal critical praise. Although many of the works have been recorded before, Chandos’s standards in terms of performances and sound quality virtually ensure they become benchmarks immediately.

This latest instalment gets off to a thoroughly rousing, if relatively uncharacteristic, start with the one item billed as ‘premiere recording’, the Coronation March. I have certainly never thought of the pacifist Bridge in terms of Elgarian pomp and jingoism, and the failure of the march to win the competition it was composed for is no real surprise. It’s not that it is badly written or lacking swagger and exuberance – far from it – but as Paul Hindmarsh’s excellent note reminds us, ‘…Bridge’s penchant for irregular phrase lengths, […] for modal inflexions and for harmonic excursions to remote keys are not the stuff of popular marches’. Quite so, but that’s just what makes this piece interesting and subtly different. The sumptuous orchestral palette and warm lyricism, especially in the trio section, are most winning and it is no surprise to learn that as Bridge started work on this march, he was in the process of orchestrating what has become his best known piece, The Sea.

Summer is one of a trio of orchestral idylls written whilst Europe was in turmoil and the composer had ‘escaped’ to a country retreat to brood on his own inner turmoil. This probably explains why any hint of English pastoralism is balanced out by a wistful, haunting quality in much of the piece. The gloriously full melody that emerges from the shadows at 4’56 is ravishingly memorable, but I still sense amid the playfulness a mood of anxiety that is never far below the surface.

That sense of foreboding and unease are very much to the fore in the disc’s longest work, Phantasm. Bridge calls this a rhapsody because of the single movement form, but it is clearly and rigorously organised. The opening piano flourishes are based around quite dissonant tritonic harmony, perhaps suggesting the ghostly apparitions of long-dead friends and colleagues. This feeling is heightened as the work progresses, particularly from 4’44 onwards, where a weird danse macabre gets underway. From here the piano winds its way around squealing woodwind and a crunching ostinato figure. There is sun and light let in here and there, but more often than not they are snuffed out, usually by brass or the percussive soloist, who make sure the piece ends as darkly as it started. Hickox’s grasp of the mood swings is masterly and the orchestra is with him every step of the way, relishing the many featured solo passages. Howard Shelley plays, as always, with complete technical and intellectual assurance, and the whole work, far from being depressing, has an intense, sombre magic of the Rachmaninov kind, brooding but ultimately exhilarating.

The impression for small orchestra, There is a Willow Grows aslant a Brook could well be the most well-known piece on the disc; it is certainly the most recorded. Hickox is again exemplary in his control of the subtle detail, the tiny shifts of chromatic harmony that give the piece its melancholy flavour. I grew up with the old Neville Dilkes version on EMI, but this Hickox performance is easily as good as any I’ve heard in recent years, beautifully gauged in its mood and intensity.

The two lighter pieces that end the disc lift the gloom and provide perfect contrast to what has gone before. The three delightful Vignettes de danse are described by Hindmarsh as ‘…light-hearted musical postcards from a motoring holiday of the Alps and Mediterranean coast’. The orchestral colour and exoticism are seductive, particularly the third, ‘Carmelita’, an extrovert depiction of Spain.

The miniature dance poem, Sir Roger de Coverley (A Christmas Dance), was popular from the word go, receiving prolonged applause after its premiere (in orchestral form) at the last night of the proms in 1922. It makes a rumbustious, jovial end to the disc.

It may seem a little tiresome to recommend yet another Chandos/Hickox collaboration wholeheartedly, but I’m going to anyway. Hardened Bridge fans may have their own particular favourites from over the years, and Hickox certainly doesn’t have the field to himself. But standards of musicianship, recording and presentation are incredibly high here, and whether you are collecting the whole series or not, if you invest in this disc you will not be disappointed.

Tony Haywood

 



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