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
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
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.
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
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
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.
see also comparative
review by Christopher Howell