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Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Piano Music: Volume 1

Suite, A Fairy Tale (1917): [11.19]
(The Princess: Allegretto con moto [2.49]; The Ogre: Allegro deciso [1.27]; The Spell: Adagio e sostenuto [4.12]; The Prince: Allegro giocoso [2.52])
The Hour Glass (1919-20): [14.15]
(Dusk: Molto moderato [4.59]; The Dew Fairy: Allegretto moderato e rubato [3.48]; The Midnight Tide: Molto lento [5.58])
Miniature Pastorals (Set 1) (1917): [6.09]
(Allegretto con moto [2.17]; Tempo di valse [2.09]; Allegretto ben moderato [1.44])
Three Lyrics (1921-24): [8.30]
(Heart's Ease: Andante tranquillo – Lento [2.34]; Dainty Rogue: Molto allegro e vivo [1.53]; The Hedgerow: Allegretto moderato [4.02])
Three Pieces (1912) [8.56]
(Columbine: Poco lento - Tempo di Valse [2.55]; Minuet: Tempo di Minuetto [2.04]; Romance: Andante molto moderato [3.57])
In Autumn (1924): [8.19]
(Retrospect: Adagio ma non troppo [5.37]; Through the Eaves: Allegro moderato e rubato [2.41])
Three Poems (1914-15): [11.55]
(Solitude: Poco adagio e molto espressivo [3.25]; Ecstasy: Lento e sostenuto - Allegro con moto [4.38]; Sunset: Adagio e sostenuto [3.51])
Ashley Wass (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 19-21 April 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557842 [70.06]

Over the years listeners have found Bridge’s changes of direction somewhat bewildering. It’s not as if it were a completely linear development. It’s true that there is basically a first period of high class salon music, a second period of intense chromaticism and a radical, expressionist third period. Radical, that is to say, in the British context. It is also true, however, that this logical enough process could be interrupted by charming relapses towards salon music, such "A Fairy Tale" (1917) which hardly sounds as if it were posterior in date to "Dance Poem" (1913), "Summer" (1915) or the "Three Poems" (1914-1915) which are included here. Also to 1917 belong the pretty Miniature Pastorals (Set 1), presumably intended as educational music rather than for professional performance.

As I say, Bridge’s development can seem confusing enough when heard in chronological order, which is surely how a complete edition ought to be arranged. Instead we have a first disc which jumps back and forth from early to late making a cat’s breakfast of any chance we have of following the composer along his unusual path.

Still, if that were all that was wrong ….

The disc begins with "A Fairy Tale", charming light music with a touch of greater depth in "The Spell". The suite opens with "The Princess", a lilting waltz-like piece. Wass makes a nice sound, but does not differentiate in touch between the melody in the left hand and the arpeggios in the right. The result is that the music just sounds like harmonic doodling. He has an impeccable feeling for timing and rubato, but if the essential pianistic colours are lacking the music doesn’t stand a chance. In the second piece, "The Ogre", the marcato passages are all played forte, even though Bridge has carefully graded the dynamics from piano to mezzo-forte and forte. "The Spell" is likeable where the music is basically chordal, but over on the third page, where a sinuous counter-melody appears in the inner parts, there is again no differentiation in colours between melody and counter-melody. The last piece, "The Prince", is OK when it is boisterous, but when an elegant, lyrical melody starts in the left hand, you just wouldn’t know it was there.

I could stop here, and I think that non-specialist readers might stop reading at this point. The message is clear: whether or not Bridge’s piano music is for you is not something you can fairly discover by buying this disc. If I continue it is because I realize I am dismissing the work of a pianist who has won golden opinions for this disc elsewhere and in similar repertoire (Bax, which I haven’t heard) and I think I should give chapter and verse as to why.

"The Hour Glass" is a work which will potentially appeal to those who love "Summer" and "Dance Poem". The middle number was long a favourite until the chill winds of the later 20th century rejected a piece called "The Dew Fairy" on principle. In the first piece, "Dusk", Bridge has made it quite clear what he wants, marking the melody – in the middle voice, as befits a viola-player – "piano" and the right-hand figures, as well as the bass-line, "pianissimo". Lest this should not be enough, he also wrote "la melodia ben cantando". Evidently it was not enough; and it would not even be enough to play the one louder than the other. Different colours are called for or the listener will again perceive the music as harmonic doodling.

"The Dew Fairy" is marked "Allegretto moderato e rubato"; I call Wass’s tempo an Andante, and very sleepy the fairy sounds. The booklet-note writer, Andrew Burn, knows what’s what when he says that "the shimmering flight of The Dew Fairy provides translucent contrast". I doubt if he was basing himself on this performance. And why make a diminuendo in the first bar of line 2 of page 4 when Bridge wrote a crescendo, and why go slower on the next line when Bridge wrote Più animato (and when he did write allargando three lines below)?

I have no score to "The Midnight Tide" and can only hope that it need not sound as turgid as it does here.

The Miniature Pastorals were intended as teaching pieces. They have no individual titles but each was accompanied in the original edition by a drawing. Writing down for children is always risky and these are very flimsy pieces – a good many composers without a tithe of Bridge’s talent, such as Rowley or Dunhill, actually managed far better in this particular field. Nonetheless, the first has a certain wistful charm, mainly well brought off, except that here and there Wass changes the character by adding some staccatos where he thinks Bridge didn’t write enough. The second is marked "Tempo di Valse" and could serve the children as a preliminary exercise in colouring the different voices – the second page is really a three-part invention. They would need a better maestro than Wass, however, if the three parts are not to coagulate into ungrateful chromatic chords as they do here.

The Three Lyrics are among Bridge’s puzzlers. Originally there were just two, written in 1921 and 1922 in a similar manner to "The Hour Glass". Then in 1924, with the groundbreaking experience of the Piano Sonata behind him, Bridge added a third in a much more astringent style, so the set doesn’t really add up.

If anybody reading this review has a score, I would ask him to listen to Wass’s rendering, in the first piece, "Heart’s Ease", of the second page, line two, bars 3-4. Can he deny that the listener will understand the melody line to be C sharp-B-E, when in reality it is C sharp-E, and the B belongs to an inner voice? This is symptomatic of much that is wrong with these performances and could not distort the music more if the notes themselves had been actually changed.

"Dainty Rogue", the second piece, has plenty of dash though it is perhaps more roguish than dainty. But I have to take issue with no. 3, "The Hedgerow". To my ears Wass’s tempo is an andante, not the prescribed "Allegretto moderato". Bridge also marked the main theme "delicato" and this is all too chunky and opaque, lacking the proper elegance (a sort of droll waltz) and transparency to give a point to all the strange twitterings and patterings.

With the "Three Pieces" we jump back to the earliest Bridge (1912, but the Minuet, no. 2, was originally written in 1901). Modest salon music and neatly done. I only have scores for the first two but the Romance, no. 3, is convincing.

The pair of pieces called "In Autumn" is the latest work on this disc (1924) and a fine example of Bridge’s modernist period. The first, "Retrospect", is generally well done though I do feel that the chords would sound less gritty if the melody line had been separated out with a different colour. I also think that Wass might listen to Sir Adrian Boult’s conducting of the "Lament for Strings" (Lyrita, unavailable as far as I know) as an example of how a slow tempo can actually be all the more poignant if it’s kept mobile. Bridge has in fact written "Adagio ma non troppo" (my italics). The second piece, "Through the Eaves", is taken at a rather comfortable tempo for an Allegro, even an "Allegro moderato e rubato" and the melody in the middle voice is only intermittently clear. It isn’t at all evident, for example, that the melody is starting again at the end of line 3 of page 2, and Bridge wrote "espress." over it. This is another case where the note-writer seems to know better than the pianist – he describes it as "a fleeting vision shot through with rustlings and furtive movements".

The "Three Poems" are middle-period Bridge (1914-15), intensely chromatic and at times suggestive of Scriabin. The first, "Solitude", has a highly sophisticated pianistic texture. The right hand has a melody in long notes, marked "dolce", and a sinuous counter-melody, marked "espress.", so different colours have to be found for these. The left-hand has a bass-line in long notes and a rocking figure which often gets tangled with the right-hand counter-melody. If the two are not well-separated, then a new counter-melody gets created which Bridge didn’t write at all. I’m afraid that’s what happens here.

The second piece is called "Ecstasy", but gets a rather sedate response from Wass. This is a piece where nothing less than the equivalent of Horowitz playing Scriabin will do. In the final piece, "Sunset", Wass does make some attempt at the proper voicing for once.

So that’s the long and short of it. Apart from the early "Three Pieces", very minor works in any case, the music is inadequately represented in a number of important ways. The result is that any sort of assessment of its actual quality is impossible. Unfortunately, I don’t know the alternative cycle by Peter Jacobs (Continuum) and the only other version I know of any of these works is Frances Gray’s of the "Three Poems". This suffers from the same failure to colour the separate voices in "Solitude", an equally sedate response to "Ecstasy" and too fast a tempo for "Sunset" – so that makes her worse still. One thing is certain – an issue like the present can do no good at all.

I am aware that issues of this kind usually get automatic rave reviews. If anyone takes issue with what I have written, I hope he will do so, not in blind rage but taking up my specific points, score in hand.

Postscript

Since writing the above, I have had the opportunity to hear the third volume of Peter Jacobs’ cycle, which includes "The Hour Glass" and "Three Lyrics". I have also received for review the first volume of a cycle by Mark Bebbington (SOMMCD 056). This will be reviewed independently in due course. For the moment it will provide a third comparison for "The Hour Glass".

For the most part, Peter Jacobs finds convincing solutions for the passages I queried in Wass’s performances. To start with the Three Lyrics, in "Heart’s Ease" the melody line on p.2, line 2, bars 3-4 is unmistakably C sharp-E as written. I also prefer his more mobile tempo here. The piece is mainly marked "lento" but it is in 3/8 not 3/4 so should presumably have the one-in-a-bar feeling that Jacobs gives it, avoiding any stickiness. "Dainty Rogue" is more upfront and boisterous from Jacobs – he gives the music more overall shape. Ideally something of the lightness of Debussy’s Puck seems called for – neither performance is really "dainty" – but this is certainly the better of the two. Jacobs is quite remarkably quicker in "The Hedgerow" – 02:37 compared with Wass’s 04:03. Certainly the scurryings and scamperings are very busy indeed and nobody can say the hedgerow is not teeming with life. I still feel there is an underlying elegance – a droll sort of waltz – which is not captured, but at least you will find the music interesting in Jacobs’s performance.

Turning now to "The Hour Glass", Jacobs has the inner melody of "Dusk" singing warmly and the upper parts as gentle as harebells. He differentiates between the two, not only by dynamics but by timbre. It is magical. Bebbington is better than Wass at bringing out the melody but only by dynamics, not timbre. Quite frankly, to my ears all three play "The Dew Fairy" andante not allegretto moderato, but Jacobs and Bebbington are at least floating if not quite fleeting – Jacobs is the swifter with Bebbington somewhere in between. Without a score of "The Midnight Tide" I can only report that Jacobs held my attention more surely while with Bebbington’s performance I once again thought the piece turgid, at least at the beginning. I enjoyed the later stages rather more.

So on this showing the Jacobs cycle seems unchallenged, even if it is not always ideal. The Bebbington cycle seems more promising than the Wass and I shall look forward to hearing the rest of the disc.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Em Marshall who was more impressed with this disc

Interview with Ashley Wass

Frank Bridge website

An issue like the present can do no good at all. ... see Full Review

 



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