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Frank BRIDGE (1879-1841)
Piano Music: Vol. 2
Piano Sonata (1921-24) [34:39]
Lament for Catherine (1915) [4:58]
Three Improvisations for the Left Hand (1917) [8:55]
(At Dawn [4:15]; A Vigil [2:52]; A Revel [1:48])
Three Sketches (1906) [8:18]
(April [2:35]; Rosemary [4:01]; Valse capricieuse [1:41])
Moderato (1903) [2:57]
Pensées fugitives I: Andante moderato (1902) [3:18]
Scherzettino: Prestissimo (1902) [4:43]
Ashley Wass (piano)
rec. St. George’s Church, Brandon Hill, Bristol, 7-9 September 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8. 557921 [67:49]

Bridge’s piano music was an important part of his output and the Piano Sonata is the pivotal piece in his entire career. His piano music was previously covered by the estimable Peter Jacobs on Continuum in 1990-91. This disc is the second volume by Ashley Wass in his Naxos survey of the Bridge piano oeuvre. It is divided pretty evenly between works from the composer’s early semi-salon days and works having some connection to the First World War. The war was to cause great changes in both Bridge’s professional and personal outlooks.

Of the pre-War works we have two sets of three, although the latter three may not have been written as a sequence. The works from 1902-3 are usually described as semi-salon works and there is a lot of the salon about them, but already - Bridge was only 23 when he wrote them - they demonstrate a sense of structure and occasionally more imagination than one would expect. The Pensées Fugitive I - there are no more - is perhaps the most interesting; fleeting enough to become almost disturbing before settling down again. Wass handles this piece well. He does not do as well with the Scherzettino, a larger piece than one might think from the title. The scope is better brought out by Peter Jacobs in his 1991 recording.

The Three Sketches were written in 1906 and again show more musical and emotional interest than one might expect. They also show an awareness of Fauré and the Impressionists that would continue in Bridge’s works of the next eight or ten years. Wass looks for the more substantial aspects of these pieces as well as emphasizing the French/Delius connection. This aspect is well brought out in the first two pieces, although sometimes at the expense of the overall conception. A different aspect of French musical culture is evidenced in the etude-like Valse capricieuse, giving Wass a chance to show more virtuosity than is required in much of the other music here.

Bridge’s Lament is one of his best-known shorter works. It was written for the daughter of family friends, all of whom perished on the Lusitania. It contains both sadness at the loss of Bridge’s friends and for what he himself would lose in the remaining years of the war. The Lament was written for strings and arranged for piano by Bridge, losing little in the translation. In his performance Wass doesn’t seem to get to the bottom of the emotional depths, although one could fault Peter Jacobs in the same way. Wass does do very well in bringing out how these pieces represent a distinct step on the way to the stylistic revelation of the Sonata.

For those unfamiliar with Bridge’s piano music the Three Improvisations may prove the most surprising and not just because they add a new work to the list of those written for pianists deprived of their right arms in the First World War. In this case the pianist and organist was Douglas Fox, later long-time music master at Clinton College and before the War an aide to Parry in the creation of his organ works. The Bridge works were written even before the war had ended and they radiate a spectral quality that is even more disturbing than the irony found in Ravel’s Concerto for the Left-Hand or the Korngold left-hand works. In At Dawn it looks like these qualities will give way to a bright dawn, but what finally occurs is only gray. The harmonic complexities in this piece and in A Vigil must have been disturbing to many listeners at the time, but A Vigil is actually quite a simple piece, but no less disturbing than its predecessor. A Revel has a watermill effect and seems less strenuous than its two companions, but its motion is relentless and unforgiving. Of all the works on this disc Wass seems to do best with this set. He brings out the dark emotions through engaging the structural and harmonic complexities of each piece. It’s very well done.

Finally we come to the Piano Sonata, the decisive work in Bridge’s output. Ashley Wass’s technical outlook on Bridge could be described as chordal and this is most evident here in his performance of the Sonata. The chordal aspect is also helped by the acoustics and the recording. He makes a good contrast between the two main themes of the first movement which form the basis of the entire work. He also emphasizes how every manifestation of the “early” Bridge is shrugged aside if not crushed by the later style. One thing that I missed was the totally natural way Bridge prepares for his recapitulation - Wass does not bring this out as well as he could.

The second movement of the Sonata is a perfect example of the arch form and Wass follows loyally. He also uses the elegiac moments of this movement to provide contrast with the mood of the second. In the last movement I found his overall pace too fast and too disturbing a contrast with what has happened in the first two movements. This treatment does succeed however in emphasizing the relentlessness of the very end of the piece.

As mentioned above the acoustical qualities of St. George’s Church, a frequent recording site, really augment Wass’s efforts. In terms of overall performance the major comparison for this disc will be found in the three discs of the Jacobs Continuum set. For me Wass produces more beautiful renditions of the music while Jacobs’ performances are better at elucidating both atmosphere and structure. However the Jacobs’ discs are very hard to come by nowadays so this and their recent provenance put Wass in an almost impregnable position. There is also the first volume of a promised complete set on Somm with Mark Bebbington (see review). I have not heard that yet but perhaps we will soon be able to compare complete cycles; something that would have seemed like a dream twenty years ago.

William Kreindler

 

 


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