My goodness, there is so much superb music just off the beaten track, and this kind of release reminds us of a still relatively untapped resource of British concert music from the last century. This CD is apparently in part a compilation from previous releases (CCD1007: Reizenstein; CCD1019: Bridge) though no reference is made to the earlier editions. The ‘Best of British’ from Continuum Music also includes a clarinet edition, and there may be more in the pipeline – it would appear marketing is still not their strongest suit.
Frank Bridge’s Piano Sonata
stands like a central granite monument in the composer’s oeuvre, surrounded as it is by some fifty other - smaller - piano works which are mostly gathered into suites of one kind or another. The moody opening signifies serious intent, and indeed the work is a memorial, dedicated to the memory of the composer Ernest Farrar, a friend of Bridge who was killed in action during WWI. This is a work in an eloquent romantic idiom, the melodic material and harmonic textures stretched and moulded into something with expressionist emphasis. In his booklet notes Calum MacDonald reminds us that this piece is contemporaneous with Berg’s Wozzeck
, and one can at times imagine colourful orchestration taking the drama of this sonata as far as the stage. Details on the harmonic language outlined in the booklet may or may not clarify this ‘late Bridge’ language, but knowing something about the technical basis for tonal complexity does no harm at all. Bridge’s music here is less chromatic than multi-tonal, the added intervals and expanding effect of tritones setting up a feeling of eternal yearning, of harmonies which are destined never to resolve.
Bridge’s Piano Sonata
is in three movements played without a break, the symphonic scale of the first yielding after around 14 minutes to a beautifully elegiac slow movement expressing “grief and bitterness at the senselessness of war and the loss of his friend.” The third movement is full of anger, both overt and turbulent, as well as bubbling under, the danger of explosive outburst ever present and inevitable. There are other recordings of this work available, the British Music Society’s set played by Malcolm Binns (review
) is also very fine and I could live happily with either, the alternative recorded a little more closely and with more substance in the bass register as a result. Both Binns and John McCabe dig deep and respond in equal measure and with palpable commitment to Bridge’s deeply personal statement.
Constant Lambert’s Piano Sonata
is introduced as a “dark, rather savage work”, though the jazzy gestures of the opening are light relief compared to the place Frank Bridge has taken us in the previous track. The jazz here is infused with a furious intensity in the first movement, at times delivering violence of striking impact. The second movement is said to have been Lambert’s favourite of the three, creating a nocturnal atmosphere from which snatches of jazzy harmonies and tunes emerge and are transformed or recede to be taken over by something else. There is a rich kind of impressionism at work here, the harmonies creating an almost continual curtain of sound from behind which lively intermezzos can appear, the limelight always holding a ghostly melancholy. The third movement is another superb invention, with touches of jazz just one element in a work of substance which includes sophisticated counterpoint and elaborate grandness of gesture.
Franz Reizenstein’s origins in Germany and studies with both Hindemith and, after arriving in London as a refugee in 1934, with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, resulted in a mix which makes him stand out as a unique figure. The Second Piano Sonata
is seen as a high point in Reizenstein’s composing for his own instrument, with significant elements of structure and counterpoint through which one can still detect the spirit of Hindemith. The personal nature and quality of the piece is strong in the slow movement, dedicated to the poet and librettist Christopher Hassall, with whom Reizenstein had worked closely on his choral works. The heartfelt power of this movement is set out unsentimentally, its effect working in an architectural accumulation of arch-like shapes. Clever counterpoint is released into a toccata-like maelstrom of notes for the finale, the white-surf rolling over a strong harmonic pulse which at times takes over to remind us that the power of the iceberg is not in what you see, but what lies under the surface.
If you like Reizenstein’s powerful piano music then Martin Jones’s set from Lyrita (review
) is something you simply must acquire. Of the Second Piano Sonata
I would once again be hard pressed to choose between one recording and another. Both bring out the drama inherent in the work, while revelling in its immaculate technical content. The continuum recorded balance is a little brighter and Philip Martin’s melodic shaping and voicing arguably given a little more character, but I could happily live with both recordings and the Lyrita set is highly recommendable for all kinds of reasons. The Continuum label has a good reputation in piano recordings and the consistency between three divergent sessions and three different players is very good indeed. I’m not so sure about the ‘Best of British’ labelling, but if this was a package of sausages I would come back for more every week of the year.