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Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)

String Quartet No. 3 (1927) [29:58]
String Quartet No. 4 (1937) [22:27]

Piano Trio No. 2 (1929) [30:36]
Phantasy Piano Quartet (1910) [12:45]
Miniatures for Piano Trio (Set 3) (c. 1907 pub. 1915) [8:42]
Allegri Quartet (Hugh Maguire (violin); David Roth (violin); Patrick Ireland (viola); Bruno Schrecker (cello))
Tunnell Trio (John Tunnell (violin); Charles Tunnell (cello); Susan Tunnell (piano))
Brian Hawkins (viola)
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, December 1971 (CD 1); Christ Church, Chelsea December 1976 (CD 2). ADD
LYRITA SRCD.302 [52:29 + 52:08]

These welcome reissues of Bridge’s chamber music derive from two Argo LPs from the 1970s which pretty much led the field at the time. In recent years we have been blessed with excellent performances of Bridge’s chamber music from the Maggini and Brindisi Quartets, for example, so that Bridge’s gifts in that field are much more widely recognised. These early performances still have something to say, however, and are by no means outclassed by their more recent competitors.

Most of the works on these CDs owe their existence to the patronage of Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge, whose enthusiasm and financial support was of great benefit to Bridge particularly at a time when his changing musical language earned him bewilderment or censure from the critics.

In the Third Quartet, Bridge’s later, tonally unstable style is much in evidence. The opening Andante moderato – Allegro moderato begins with a meandering introduction which is succeeded by a brisker Allegro. Intervals are wide, themes angular in outline; the music is restless and unsettling. A second subject appears on Bridge’s favourite viola and a crescendo over the development leads to a fortissimo recapitulation before the emphatic coda. The Andante con moto which follows is played muted throughout and creates a bittersweet, wistful mood after the forcefulness of the opening movement. This in turn is succeeded by a passionate Allegro energico, in which much of the earlier musical material is reworked. A muted close brings the Quartet to an end.

The Kolisch Quartet, famed for their interpretations of music by the Second Viennese School, first performed the Third Quartet in Vienna in 1927. Contemporary critics in this country somewhat disparagingly compared Bridge’s music of this period to that of Schoenberg and his followers. There is indeed something Bergian in the cast of the harmonies and in the passion of the writing, but also something identifiably English in the outline of the themes.

Bridge’s Fourth Quartet dates from a decade later and followed a period of serious ill health and something of a crisis of confidence in his abilities. The Quartet went through a prolonged gestation, with several sections being reworked or abandoned, before Bridge was satisfied with the result. The harmonic instability of the Third Quartet is again in evidence, although the structure is more recognisably classical in outline, with a sonata form first movement. minuet and rondo finale. As in its predecessor Bridge juxtaposes contrasting themes and moods and again aims at structural integration by repeating and reworking certain themes throughout the work; here, for instance, the exuberant finale harks back to elements of the opening movement and the central minuet.

The Allegri Quartet prove passionate advocates of the music and are sympathetically recorded in a warm Kingsway Hall acoustic. In his review of the original LP (Musical Times, June 1973) the late Hugh Ottaway admired the commitment of the performances and Bridge’s craftsmanship while admitting to being unmoved by the actual music. This seemed to him to be something of an intellectual exercise; despite the undoubted compositional virtuosity, the emotions, he felt, were not engaged. Latter-day listeners may beg to differ.

The performances on the second CD derive from a later Argo LP and feature chamber music from what we might call Bridge’s early and late styles. The Three Miniatures for Piano Trio are delightful character pieces, well played and immediately appealing to amateur or younger players. The Phantasy Piano Quartet of 1910 shows a major advance in the composer’s handling of the musical structure while remaining within a recognisably tonal musical language. Common to all the Cobbett-inspired Phantasy works of the period (by composers such as Vaughan Williams, Howells and Ireland) are a number of contrasting sections within an overall unified form. The performance of the Tunnell Trio is excellent though perhaps without the dramatic sweep and flair of Britten’s 1967 Aldeburgh performance with the Amadeus Quartet once available on Decca/London.

The main work on this second disc is the 1929 Second Piano Trio. This has with some justification been described as Bridge’s masterpiece. The musical language is, like that of the Third and Fourth Quartets, uncompromising in Bridge’s post-war vein and this led to some particularly harsh comments in the press from some of the country’s more insular critics, some of which are quoted in the booklet notes. The performers are fully equal to the music, giving a relatively restrained performance of the first three movements to contrast with their commitment in the exacting finale. Once again Britten and his distinguished colleagues Yehudi Menuhin and Maurice Gendron provide formidable competition at Aldeburgh in 1963 (courtesy BBC Legends).

With illuminating notes by Bridge expert Paul Hindmarsh these discs form a perfect introduction to the composer’s chamber music and to one of Britain’s most original and imaginative composers. Sold as Two discs for the price of one.

Ewan McCormick


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