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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Enter Spring (Rhapsody) (1927) [19:20]
Summer (Tone Poem) (1914) [9:40]
Two Poems for orchestra (1915) [10:56]
The Sea - Suite (1911) [21:39]
New Zealand SO/James Judd
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, N.Z., 11-15 Nov 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.557167 [62:17]

I have already given this CD as a present to one of my friends. A couple of other acquaintances have been earmarked for receiving their copy. To my mind this is possibly one of the best introductions to Frank Bridge’s music that is available on the market. This applies to the quality of the recording, the stature of the playing and the repertoire. Even the cover is a fine painting by Henry Moore – the seascape painter, not the sculptor! My only contention is one or two unseemly remarks in the programme notes. But perhaps more about that later?

I must confess to being a big Bridge fan. I will admit I am more at home with his music than that of his illustrious pupil, Benjamin Britten. In fact, I would almost go as far to say that he was in the top five of my favourite English composers. However, I always baulk at making this list as it seems to change from year to year and sometimes even day to day.

So why is it such a good introduction? Well apart from the quality of the playing and recording it represents an excellent cross-section of the composer’s music. It effectively straddles Bridge’s personal artistic hiatus; a hiatus that was a result of the Great War.

Let’s present the works in chronological order. The Sea - Suite (1911), Summer (1914-15), Two Poems (1915) and Enter Spring (1927). We can immediately see that the two middle works were composed during the early days of the war. The Sea was at the high point of the Edwardian era and the Enter Spring composed some nine years after the conclusion of hostilities but in a world that was economically troubled and beginning to see the first signs of political trouble that would lead to the Second World War.

First of all I want to dispel the notion that The Sea is in some way an English response to Debussy’s La Mer. It is not. Of course it could be argued that the music is an evocation of the sea and an impressionistic one at that. But if you play the two works back to back one will notice the difference. Bridge uses and develop themes. Whereas, I believe, that the Debussy is more driven by motifs.

There are four movements, all of which lend to the magic of this impressive tone poem. Let Bridge’s words give us some idea of the mood evoked in this score:-

"Seascape paints the sea on a summer morning. From high drifts is seen a great expanse of waters lying in the sunlight. Warm breezes play over the surface. Sea-foam froths among the low-lying rocks and pools on the shore, playfully not stormy. Moonlight, a calm sea at night. The first moonbeams are struggling to pierce through the clouds, which eventually pass over, leaving the sea shimmering in full moonlight. Finally a raging Storm. Wind, rain and tempestuous seas, with the lulling of the storm an allusion to the first number is heard and which may be regarded as a sea lover’s dedication to the sea."

The young Benjamin Britten was totally bowled over when he first heard this work performed at a Norwich Triennial Festival concert in 1924. He was particularly impressed with the ‘sensuous harmonies’ in the Moonlight movement.

It is perhaps interesting to note that Frank Bridge composed much of this music in Eastbourne, with the seascape of the English Channel in view. Strangely it was at an hotel in the same town that Debussy put the final touches to his masterpiece.

Incidentally, I was interested to note on the Arkiv CD web site that there are some 109 recordings of Debussy’s La Mer compared to six of the work by Bridge.

The tone poem, Summer must rank as one of my all-time favourites. It would certainly feature as one of my desert island discs. I understand that it was composed whilst the composer was living in Bedford Gardens in Kensington. However, he had recently (1914) moved from Chiswick. It was at a time when the composer was extremely disturbed by the effect the war was having on the lives of his friends. Of course, Bridge was too old to be involved in the fighting himself; besides he was an unrepentant pacifist. He was troubled by the apparent jingoism that was in the air at that time. Rather than write a ‘troubled’ work depicting in musical terms the clash of the Titans, he resorted to a kind of escapism. It is in this context that we are to listen to Summer and also the Two Poems which were composed at about this time.

It would be easy to see Summer as a kind of parody of Delius. However, it is actually a cleverly constructed work having an obvious ternary form. Of course the skill that the composer brings with his orchestration and harmonic structures tends to blur the underlying structure. This is one of those pieces of music that need to be listened to with a kind of relaxed concentration. By this I mean that it is not to be listened to in the background whilst discussing the holiday snaps over a glass of Chianti. Neither, though, should it be an intellectual exercise. Switch off the light, open the window, think of your lover, enjoy the cool evening breeze and just fall into the delicious harmonies and counterpoints. Let the music wash over you. Lose yourself in the summer’s day haze. Think of Matthew Arnold’s evocative lines ‘All the live murmur of a summer’s day!’ It is nine minutes and forty seconds of heaven. There is plenty of time to evaluate and analyse next morning.

Frank Bridge must have the final word. He is quoted as saying in a letter to his wife, ‘…only if there is such a thing as rest in the soul of the listener and in the sweetness of a summer day faraway in the heart of the country will my piece Summer make any impression.’ It does, and always has, blown me over.

The other works from this period also deserve our attention. They are based on the now largely forgotten writings of Richard Jefferies. Amongst many other things, he essayed on life in the English countryside. He was a nature mystic. Perhaps his philosophy is best summed up by the quotation 'The sun was stronger than science; the hills more than philosophy.'

The first of the two poems is scored for a small orchestra and has the following written on the manuscript from The Open Air, a book written in 1885, ‘Those thoughts and feelings which are not sharply defined, but have a haze of distance and beauty about them, are always dearest.’ Paul Hindmarsh well describes this miniature as a ‘restrained essay in veiled sonority, sensuous chromaticism and ambivalent tonality.’ It is not quite pastoralism, but comes close. The use of oboe and muted strings lend credence to this impression.

The second poem is in fact a little scherzo. Unlike the first, it has parts for brass and percussion. It differs, too in the fact that this poem is actually harmonically obvious and the formal structure is much more up-front. It is more extrovert in its tone. Bridge has applied Jefferies’ words from The Story of my Heart to the score, "How beautiful a delight to make the world joyous! The song should never be silent, the dance never still, the laugh should sound like water which runs for ever."

Once again let me put my cards on the table. I believe that Bridge’s masterpiece is Enter Spring. Furthermore, I believe it is perhaps the finest tone poem in the repertoire of British music. Now that is fulsome praise indeed!

This work is the latest on this disc. It was composed twelve years after the Two Poems. In spite of its ‘Georgian’ title, there is no way that it could be described as a purely pastoral piece. It is not a cow leaning over a gate. However there is a pastoral element to it that is, as Rob Barnett has said, ‘tempered with the more serious stirrings of his more avant-garde style.’

The background to this work lies in the beautiful Sussex Downs. Although Bridge’s life centred on London he was able to spend much time in his native county. In the nineteen-twenties Bridge and his wife built a house, Friston Field, near West Dean. It overlooked a large panorama of the Downs. We have already noted how the sea had influenced Bridge; I have always imagined that it was the English Channel that provided the inspiration for The Sea. The Downs were to provide the backdrop to Enter Spring. Originally it was to have been called On Friston Down but the name was abandoned.

It would be easy to play ‘spot the influence’ with this piece. There are perhaps echoes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or perhaps Arnold Bax’s Spring Fire. The Editor alludes to John Foulds’ great but neglected work April-England. Ravel and Debussy and perhaps even Alban Berg are never far from the mind. But Bridge is actually beholden to no man. What we have is a synthesis of all that he had written up to 1927. This is not the place to analyse the nuts and bolts of this work. It is the forum to pile up the adjectives. This work is rich in development, subtle in its remarkable scoring. There is a superabundance of invention and imagination here – from the first to the last bar. There is a ‘formal mastery’ that makes this work a paragon of its type. It is sunny, turbulent, colourful, exuberant and melancholic all in the space of twenty minutes. At the end of the work Spring is truly ushered in. Would that I were on the Sussex Downs at Chanctonbury or Firle Beacon or West Dean to see it!

My only reservation is the programme notes. I do wish that Keith Anderson would give a Bridge a bit more credit for being appreciated by the cognoscenti. He writes, ‘[Bridge] now generally regarded as the teacher of Benjamin Britten.’ My contention is simple. If someone is knowledgeable enough to know that Bridge taught Britten they are surely knowledgeable enough to realise that Bridge was a great and accomplished composer in his own right. And secondly, I do not regard the fact that Bridge was a pupil of Stanford at the Royal College of Music as ‘conventional and restrictive training for a composer.’ I consider Stanford to be a fine and underrated composer in his own right; there is nothing dry as dust about his Second Piano Concerto or his Requiem. He was also as a fine teacher. Just take a look at his list of pupils: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, George Butterworth, E.J. Moeran, Arthur Bliss, and Percy Grainger. I rest my case.

I reiterate my opening contention. This is a fine introduction to the orchestral music of Frank Bridge. Of course there are other versions of these works available. Recordings by Britten, Sir Charles Groves and the complete series of orchestral music by Richard Hickox. But what the Naxos disc gives is a fine sequence of recordings by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under their chief conductor James Judd. The CD presents an excellent introduction to the repertoire of this great yet still largely neglected British composer.

John France

See also review by Rob Barnett



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