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Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
The Piano Music: Volume 2
Fairy Tale Suite (1917) [10:49]
In Autumn (1924) [8:42]
Miniature Pastorals Set 1 (1917) [5:44]
Etude Rhapsodique (1905) [2:25]
Graziella (1926) [4:35]
Dramatic Fantasia (1906) [12:36]
Three Pieces for Piano (1901:1913) [9:05]
A Sea Idyll (1905) [5:18]
Miniature Suite (1921) [7:57]
Characteristic Pieces (1917) [10:17]
Mark Bebbington (piano)
rec. 4-5 January 2007, CBSO Centre, Birmingham. DDD
SOMM SOMMCD 082 [77:38]
Experience Classicsonline


 

I remember a number of years ago finding a copy of Peter Jacobs’ Continuum cycle of the ‘complete’ piano works of Frank Bridge in a second-hand record shop. These were issued in the early 1990s. I devoured them eagerly and was convinced at the time that this was the definitive recording. I never imagined that in my lifetime another two ‘complete’ projects would be announced. Naxos has, so far, issued a couple of volumes by Ashley Wass. And then there is the present cycle – now also onto its second volume. The exciting thing about all these three editions is that they explore - or promise to explore - the entire piano repertoire of Frank Bridge. This is a fairly broad-based spread of music - both in substance and in style. Connoisseurs of these works will know that there is a huge stylistic and emotional difference between the great Piano Sonata of 1921 and the Etude Rhapsodique which was written some sixteen years earlier. Many pianists will have met the Miniature Pastorals and possibly part of the Miniature Suite as part of their ‘grades’. But typically I guess that much of this music is largely unknown to all but a few enthusiasts.

The key to understanding Bridge’s music is to realise that he had a creative hiatus during and after the Great War. Although there were still approachable works and even some ‘salon’ pieces, the general tenor of Bridge’s mature compositions moved towards boundaries laid down by Bartók and Berg rather than any British model. In some of his late compositions he was beginning to experiment with music that is pushing towards a ‘twelve tone’ synthesis but without ever subscribing to a particular system.

The disc opens with a convincing performance of the ‘wartime’ Fairy Tale Suite. This was composed in September and October 1917. The very titles of this Suite would appear to be evoking the world of the nursery and of childhood. However, it is clear to see that they are not actually pieces composed for children – either to play or to hear. It has been suggested that Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite may well be a model of this nostalgic, but not sentimental, look at the world of fairy-tale. Yet, with even a cursory hearing, the listener can surely detect some of the angst that Bridge was feeling at this time of universal suffering during the Great War. The suite has four contrasting movements. The first is a carefree, waltz-like evocation of A Princess possibly reflecting on the previous evening’s ball. The rather sinister study of The Ogre, who may or may not be truly evil, is really the only grotesque and troubled part of this Suite. The Spell is truly gorgeous: this is a calm and reflective study that has been likened to the ‘the waving of a wand’. It is a movement of true beauty and manages to suspend time in a magical sort of way. The work ends with a kind of ‘happy ever after’ finale where The Prince is reunited with his beloved Princess. Bridge must have been very conscious that this ‘happy ending’ was not the reality for many of his friends at that time.

Nothing could be in greater contrast to the Fairy Tale Suite than the next piece – the two-movement In Autumn. This work was composed after the ground-breaking and style-changing Piano Sonata. The first of these two pieces is called Retrospect which inhabits an “elusive harmonic world” where “the ideas [are] constantly transformed, but the tormented power [is] unmistakable”. The second movement, Through the Eaves is a little bit ‘lighter’ in tone – yet the same despairing mood as the first movement is still apparent. Perhaps the only flashes of light are the complex and ever-changing arpeggios that create an “iridescent harmonic” colouring. For all its despair, this is a beautiful piece of music.

Unlike the Fairy Tale Suite, the three sets of Miniature Pastorals were actually written for children. However, they are in no way patronising or condescending – either technically or aesthetically. Mark Bebbington plays the first set here, which has three well balanced movements. It was composed in 1917. The opening ‘allegretto con moto’ is really a little march which suggests a little girl dancing to a pipe tune played by a boy in a tree. The sad little waltz is meant to intimate that the boy and girl have had a tiff. And the last movement is full of the wonder of nature: here is a jig tune that is accompanied by birdsong.

The Etude Rhapsodique is one of my personal favourites from the corpus of Frank Bridge’s piano music. It was composed in November 1905 and is really a difficult study in ‘chromatic colouration’ juxtaposed with a ‘fast descending semiquaver figure’ which is announced at the beginning of the work. Yet at the heart of the Etude there is a gorgeous explosion of a ‘big’ tune or at least ‘phrase’ which has all the romance of Chopin or Scriabin. The piece remained unpublished until 1990.

The programme notes suggest the ‘late’ Graziella (1926) is in fact meant to be a ‘salon’ piece. Yet the reality is that this work is much more related to the Piano Sonata than to the more ‘popular’ pieces of the years before the Great War. It is certainly a convoluted, enigmatic and elusive work that is quite difficult to pin down. Yet perhaps what we discover here is a perfect fusion of Bridge’s two main stylistic periods? On this basis it is possibly a very important piece.

One of the most impressive numbers on this CD is the Dramatic Fantasia. Interestingly, this work was composed in 1906, around the time that the composer was successfully winning prizes in the Cobbett chamber music competitions. Those works were spelt Phantasies and are still amongst the best-loved chamber music by Bridge. It is probably fair to say that the Dramatic Fantasia owes much to the ethos of the Cobbett works – especially in its formal construction.

Even on first hearing, the listener will be struck by the late-romantic style. It would be very easy to try to identify which composers influenced this work. Certainly, there is comparatively little here that could not have been written by any composer in the Western world at that time. Yet, that is by and large beside the point. Bridge handles his material and his technique with great skill and aplomb. It is a big work, lasting nearly quarter of an hour, and is full of diverse musical statements: a huge range of emotional ground is covered. Much of the sound-world is purely ‘romantic’ in whatever sense of the word the listener wishes to use it. Some of this music is quite simply gorgeous.

Frank Bridge gave the holograph copy of this work to his friend, the pianist Florence Smith. She never got around to playing and it ended up lying forgotten on a shelf. It was discovered in the late 1970s and was recognized as the great work that it is. It was given its first performance by Peter Jacobs in the summer of 1979.

The Three Pieces for Piano was published in 1913 and perhaps represent Bridge’s salon music at its most sophisticated. The first piece is Columbine which is really a characteristic waltz to which Bridge adds a degree of exoticism. The Minuet is an early piece - having been composed in 1901. However, the composer revised this music for publication. It is rather modern in sound and has been compared to Ravel. The final Romance is truly lovely. Typically tender in mood, there are a couple of adroitly-stated climaxes. It is a well written love-song that is typical of Bridge’s style.

The Sea Idyll was written in 1905 and was dedicated to the pianist Harold Samuel who premièred it at the Bechstein Hall. Although I have been unable to locate a contemporary review, I understand that it was well received by the public and was published the following year. It is a true ‘seascape’ that explores a number of the ocean’s moods – from the flowing tide, the misty mornings and perhaps even tells some old mariner’s tale. However, in spite of Bridge’s love of the English Channel and his subsequent move to Friston in Sussex, this is not a description of a northern sea: this is Mediterranean music that manages to avoid too much in the way of Debussian impressionistic effects.

The Miniature Suite was ‘created’ by Paul Hindmarsh from a number of Bridge’s fragmentary sketches found amongst his manuscripts and papers at the Royal College of Music. Lewis Foreman in the annotation points out that Hindmarsh was encouraged by the late John Bishop to edit these and prepare them for publication in 1990. The sketches were from around 1921 and relate to the time of the Miniature Pastorals – although they are certainly more complex and technically difficult and have a little more depth to the mood. There are three contrasting movements: the Chorale is a ‘funeral march’ complete with fanfares and drum-rolls, the lovely Impromptu is not difficult but surely provides the young or amateur player with a relatively easy approach to Bridge’s post-war style. The scherzo-like Caprice is much more difficult and is perhaps the most impressive part of the Suite. However the final March brings the proceedings to a close with what is really a parody of the form.

The last work on this disc is the Four Characteristic Pieces dating from the spring of 1917. This music is in the ‘French’ style and the listener could be forgiven for thinking that they had come across a newly-discovered work by Ravel or even Debussy. The reviewer in the January 1918 edition of the Musical Times was obviously impressed, however I guess that he was also a little bemused. He wrote that “…a much tougher proposition is a set of four Characteristic Pieces by Frank Bridge, entitled Water Nymphs, Fragrance, Bittersweet and Fireflies. These clever works call for more extended notice than we can find room for, and we must be content with merely bringing them to the notice of pianists with a liking for the pungent and bizarre …”

I am not convinced that after more than ninety years we would find them ‘pungent and bizarre’ however there are certainly very few pieces of this quality and mood in British music at that time. This is complex music that demands a superb technique and a good aural imagination.

It is an invidious task to suggest what is the ‘best’ recorded edition of Frank Bridge’s piano music. Peter Jacobs’ Continuum version is not typically available in the record shops – although they can be found for sale on some websites – either second-hand or ‘new.’ As this was the edition through which I discovered this great music, I tend to have a soft spot for it. However, I have recently enjoyed listening to Ashley Wass on Naxos – he seems to have taken Bridge to his heart and had produced a number of excellent performances. Bebbington impresses me too. I think especially of the romantic Etude Rhapsodique and the less that innocent Fairy Tale Suite. And lastly, he does not mock the Miniature Pastorals. In spite of their technical simplicity he does take them seriously and presents them with care and with love.

For the Frank Bridge enthusiast, all three versions of this music are vital additions to their CD collections.

Finally, the sound quality of this disc is natural and satisfying and the general presentation is impressive. An excellent investment!

John France

 

 


 


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