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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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

Capriccio No.1 (1905) [2:36]
Three Sketches: April, Rosemary, Valse Capricieuse (1906, published 1915) [8:19]
Capriccio No.2 (1905) [4:47]
The Hour Glass: Dusk, The Dew Fairy, Midnight Tide (1919/1920) [13:39]
Vignettes de Marseille: Carmelita, Nicolette, Zoraida, En fête (1925) [12:27]
Sonata for Piano (1921-1924) [34:57]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. Number 8 Arts centre, Pershore, Worcestershire [dates not cited], 23-24 October 2005. DDD
SOMMCD 056 [77:24]

 

Forgive me for saying this, but I am a little concerned that there appear to be two series of Frank Bridge’s ‘complete’ piano works being issued concurrently. All ‘Bridge Buffs’ will know that the pioneer in this direction was Peter Jacobs and his 1989/1990 three CD release. Most of us have thanked our lucky stars that this issue dominated the scene for a number of years. It is difficult to know if the Continuum label is still extant – but I fear that the CDs have long been deleted. So apart from a few ‘numbers’ in compilations and of course the Sonata there has been no survey of Frank Bridge’s piano music available for quite some time. Now in 2006 two CD companies – Naxos and Somm have chosen to begin a Bridge cycle.

I always worry when Naxos begin a ‘series’ – I especially think of the seemingly stalled Liszt ‘complete piano works’. Perhaps I look closer to home and wonder when the next volume of John Ireland piano pieces will be released – the last was in 1999. So what hope Bridge?

Somehow I have more confidence in Somm completing the course. On the basis of this present CD I am looking forward to having the next two Bridge releases from Mark Bebbington. This is a well presented CD – with reasonably good ‘sleeve’ notes and an excellent programme.

I first came across Mark Bebbington at a landmark recital at St John’s Smith Square a few months ago. It was enough to make English music fans drool. He performed the sadly forgotten but absolutely wonderful William Hurlstone Sonata, the huge Benjamin Dale Sonata and in-between these two revelations he played the Sonata by Frank Bridge. It was a superb evening and, although the concert was sparsely attended, the applause was enthusiastic and the reception of these great British masterworks was frankly energetic!

It was announced at the concert that Mark was due to release the first in a series of CDs covering the entire corpus of Frank Bridge’s piano music. I could not wait.

Let’s look at the music. Bridge’s career is often misleadingly presented as if it falls into three very neat but quite disparate periods. The first of these is usually stated as being ‘Early Period of the Romantic Type’, the second as being a ‘Middle period of Impressionism’ and lastly, the third is exemplified by a ‘Dissonant Contemporary Technique.’ This may work as a rule of thumb, but even a brief study of Frank Bridge’s works will reveal that it is a thumb that is frequently broken!

The present CD crosses the boundaries of these arbitrary categorisations. For example the Vignettes de Marseille is a relatively late piece that was composed after the Sonata. These four short descriptive pieces are full of ‘Southern’ charm and are rather more salon pieces than major additions to modernistic piano literature. Yet it seems possible that Bridge was deliberately parodying light or popular musical traits.

They were composed after the composer and his wife had holidayed in the south of France with the American patroness Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. They are carefree pieces that are musically uncomplicated (not easy) and typically reflect ‘local’ rhythms and colour. The first three are named after girls – Carmelita who is typically Spanish, Nicolette who is a French girl and Zoraida who definitely has Moorish blood in her veins. The last movement brings all the actors together in En Fête which is a ‘cheerful rondo.’ It is an appropriate close to a fine set of miniatures.

Bebbington brings out all the sultry and moody feeling of these works. He is well able to reveal the characters of the three girls and give us all the fun of the fair. Carmelita is a girl I would really like to know – and perhaps once did!

The Capriccio No.1 is the earliest work on this CD and was penned in 1905. It was written for a competition inaugurated by the pianist Mark Hambourg. There were some 96 entrants but Frank Bridge took the first prize! It is a short piece that is full of vigour yet manages to have one or two more reflective moments amongst all the excitement. There is considerable technical pianism about this work: changes of time signature lead to interest and dynamism in this impressive short piece.

The second Capriccio in F# minor is quite definitely a virtuosic show-piece. Much intricate, finger-twisting passage work sits either side of a delicious middle section. Perhaps Chopin and Liszt are the models here – yet the central section looks forward to Bridge’s later works. Bebbington is convincing in developing and displaying the considerable contrasts in this enjoyable piece.

I do not imagine there are many Bridge enthusiasts who do not know the lovely Rosemary in one or other of its guises. It is just about in the gift of an amateur pianist, but it is totally rewarding to hear it played by a fine concert pianist. Much more complex are the first and last of the Three Sketches. April, which is a brilliant piece, requires a very delicate touch to bring out the ‘skittish’ joys of the season. Look out for the gorgeous last few bars. The Valse Capricieuse is a wistful piece that is perhaps most at home in an Edwardian drawing room. Yet even here there is a melancholy that goes beyond mere popular music.

Christopher Howell has examined the three available versions of the ‘The Hour Glass’ and has commented on them in detail. I do not wish to develop this discussion save to say that I am impressed by Bebbington’s performance and prefer it to Ashley Wass on Naxos.

There are three pieces in this short suite. The first, Dusk is a sensitive piece that is almost timeless in its development. The magic here is perhaps created by a subtle balance of tone between the two principal musical ideas.

The Dew Fairy is a study in extremely rapid figurations and the ability to maintain an excellent pianissimo. This is an intricate piece that is well performed here.

The last number is the masterpiece. This is a slow sea piece – not a stormy one like Greville Cooke’s Cormorant Crag. It is easy to see resemblances to Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, yet this would be a little disingenuous. We must never forget that Frank Bridge’s most popular work is the fine suite The Sea: the ocean was always a great inspiration to the composer. The Midnight Tide has a massiveness about it that suggests the power of the sea – this is definitely not wavelets on a summer’s day. I was reminded of the mood of William Baines’ Goodnight to Flamboro’.

I do not intend to give a detailed account of the Piano Sonata as in reality it probably deserves an article or a review in its own right. It is certainly the composer’s most ambitious work for the piano. And it must not be forgotten that Bridge struggled to bring his Piano Sonata into the world: there was a three year gestation period. The musical content is considerable – the depth and intensity is at times almost unbearable. The piece is said by many commentators to represent Bridge’s latest style – the one described as ‘Dissonant Contemporary Technique’. It was dedicated to the composer Ernest Farrar (whose music is interesting if not monumental). Farrar was killed on the Somme in 1917 and was thus never able to realise his creative potential.

The Sonata is a long work – lasting for more than half an hour. It is written in three movements that are internally related and are played without a break. Much of the soundscape is ‘uncompromisingly dissonant’ yet this is not the whole truth. There are some lovely, even gorgeous moments that belie the general mood of 'sustained outburst and anger.’

Neither is this all ‘modernistic’: it derives quite clearly from the 19th century piano sonata. Liszt is an obvious exemplar. Yet Bridge brings his own unique harmonies and structural principles to his Sonata. This is perhaps the composer’s masterpiece. It is a work that we need to work at. It is never easy on a first (or even a third hearing) yet I am convinced that there is no better example of a Piano Sonata in the literature of British Music and certainly no work provides us with a greater understanding of the horrors and desolation of the First World War as perceived by the deep feeling mind of Frank Bridge.

I feel that Mark Bebbington manages to present these complex and sometimes harrowing musical arguments in a convincing manner. It is a formidable work with huge technical and interpretive problems yet the pianist manages to give the work coherence and clarity. I have not listened to Peter Jacobs’ rendition for a number of years so I do not wish to compare the two versions. Yet I do know that I find Mark Bebbington’s recording quite beautiful – if this Sonata can be so described – and certainly moving. Furthermore I know that a friend of mine was totally bowled over by this work when she heard Bebbington play it at St. John’s Smith Square. This present recording is a faithful re-interpretation of the performance given that night.

John France

see also comparative review by Christopher Howell

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