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Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Piano Quintet H49a (1905) [28:16]
Three Idylls H67 (1907) [13:32]
String Quartet No.4 H188 (1937) [23:00]
Goldner String Quartet (Dene Olding (violin); Dimity Hall (violin); Irina Morozova (viola); Julian Smiles (cello)); Piers Lane (piano)
rec. 29-31 July 2008, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
HYPERION CDA67726 [65:19]
Experience Classicsonline

When one considers that the Piano Quintet in D minor is a work that sounds superb, taxes the soloists and is quite frankly a high-point of post-romantic English music, it is surprising that it is a piece that is hardly known. There is at present only one other recording available – from ASV. There is also a version for chamber orchestra and piano available as realised by Paul Hindmarsh.

According to the sleeve-notes, the Quintet’s original incarnation was a “muscular, four-movement work, with a huge piano part, brim full of musical ideas”. Yet there appears to be a down-side. Hindmarsh notes that it was a “rather unwieldy [quintet] and certainly lacking the refinement and elegance of his mature chamber works.”

After a couple of performances in 1907 the work was withdrawn and suppressed by the composer. Yet the Quintet continued to interest him. Five years later he revised the work: in fact it was largely a complete re-write. For one thing the second and the third movements were condensed into a ‘single span’. The ‘scherzo’ material from the former ‘allegro con brio’ now formed the middle section of the slow movement.  Finally, Bridge made the work ‘cyclic’ by re-introducing themes from the first movement into the final allegro.

Without the original work for comparison, the listener will have to take the work as presented. However the programme notes suggest that “most of the angularities from 1905 have been smoothed out and there is a greater reliance on Fauré-inspired arpeggiated figuration.”

All these changes led to a work which is fresh, enjoyable, moving and deserving of greater popularity.  It is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine from the considerable catalogue of Frank Bridge’s chamber music.

The strange thing about the Three Idylls is that they are best known through the lens of Benjamin Britten. The second was used to provide the theme for Britten’s well known Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. This was the pupil’s ‘affectionate’ tribute to his master.

Perhaps the term ‘Idyll’ is a little misleading for this work; it is not a particularly ‘idyllic’ piece of music in the accepted sense of the word. When I first heard these pieces I expected something loosely pastoral in sound and was perhaps a little disappointed to discover that they are anything other than the proverbial ‘cow and gate’. However, these pieces have a happy genesis: they were written for, and dedicated to, a certain violinist called Ethel Elmore Sinclair.  This Australian lady shared a desk with Bridge in the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra.  The piece was composed in 1906 and was performed the following year. After a trip to Australia, Ethel returned to England and became Bridge’s wife.

The general mood of this music is one of melancholy:  Bridge makes considerable use of the darker string tones. The first Idyll opens with a lugubrious melody for solo viola, which was the composer’s favourite instrument. It leads into a reflective and moving adagio. There is a slight brightening of atmosphere with music that has been described as having a ‘Latin beat’ before the original material returns.

The second is the shortest of the three pieces and once again is somewhat dark in humour. However the middle section is a little more animated and raises the spirits. There are hints of the ‘blues’ here created by some interesting syncopation.

The last Idyll is animated and lifts the entire work out of its moody introspection. This is the nearest that this music comes to a summer’s day as opposed to the frost-bound landscape of the previous two Idylls.

The entire work is a small masterpiece. Everything about this piece reveals a composer who is totally at home with his media, who is able to create wide-ranging music with a variety of tonal explorations and instrumental effects. It was a worthy gift to his wife-to-be.

 

The bottom line is that Bridge’s Fourth Quartet, is a major masterpiece. I admit that it has never been my favourite work – I prefer the composer’s more romantic offerings of the pre-Great War era - but I am slowly coming round to enjoying - if that is the correct word to use - it and perhaps even beginning to understand it. I certainly find that it moves me. I have written elsewhere that the Fourth String Quartet is a bit like Janus – it faces in two directions. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the harmonic language, which is often extremely dissonant.  Much of the effect seems to derive from a counterpoint that clashes rather than agrees or resolves. The first impression is of a work that owes more to the Second Viennese School than to ‘Parry ’n’ Stanford’. However, according to the musicologists, the Quartet is not actually atonal: it is rooted in a very free form of tonality, which may be more obvious under scholarly analysis than to the ear …  Yet, on the other side of the coin, the scholar Anthony Payne has remarked that its formal structure is more “‘classical’ with its ‘clear cut sonata-form first movement, followed by a minuet and a rondo finale."  It is a work that begins to fall into place on repeated listening – something that only the CD format can provide. It is unlikely to feature regularly in the concert hall.

 

The more I hear of this work, the more I come to realise that there is a passionate side to this Quartet. But perhaps this is hardly surprising. The influence of Schoenberg and his ‘school’ was not always anti-romantic. Just think of the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg, for example. The end product is a fine addition to the string quartet repertoire. The ‘note’ of Englishness has never quite left the imagination of this great composer.

 

The Fourth String Quartet was dedicated to Mrs Coolidge and was given its first performance at her Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music in Massachusetts in 1937. It was a work that was written at a time when Bridge was ill and was having a crisis in his artistic development.

 

This is a well balanced CD, with two relatively early works contrasted with his last major piece of chamber music. In fact, it was his last great work - with the exception of Rebus and the promise of the unfinished Symphony for Strings. In many ways this disc would be a good introduction to the sheer breadth of Frank Bridge’s chamber works, providing that the listener is not afraid of engaging with music that leans towards German expressionism. The opening Piano Quintet is as good as early Bridge gets. I noted earlier that the Three Idylls is somewhat melancholic, but this ‘mood’ issue apart; they are one of the composer’s masterpieces. As always with this kind of music, take each work at a time – I would plump for the order given on the CD.

 

The sound quality of the disc and the playing by the Goldner String Quartet and Piers Lane is superb. The programme notes are by Bridge scholar Paul Hindmarsh: they deserve study before and after listening to the music.

 

Fortunately there are a fair few versions of the Fourth Quartet available at the moment (Lyrita, Meridian, Naxos and Redcliffe). All these versions are worthy and each one has its supporters. However, for music as important as this (4th Quartet) there can never be too many recordings! All enthusiasts of Frank Bridge and of English chamber music will want to have this recording along with all the rest! 

 

John France

 

 

 

See also MWI Frank Bridge article: http://www.musicweb-international.com/bridge/index.htm


 


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