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.
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
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.