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
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
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
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
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