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Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Songs and Chamber Music
Phantasie Piano Quartet, H94 (1910) [12:10]
Phantasie Piano Trio, H79 (1907) [16:41]
Scherzo, for cello & piano (1901, rev. 1902 ) [4:04]
Souvenir, for violin & piano (1904) [3:43]
All things that We Clasp (1907) [1:44]
Come to Me in my Dreams (1906, rev. 1918) [3:50]
Dawn and Evening (1903) [1:44]
Strew no more Red Roses (1913) [2:57]
My pent-up Tears Oppress My Brain (1906) [2:42]
Night Lies on the Silent Highways (1904) [2:49]
A Dirge (1903) [1:11]
A Dead Violet (1904) [3:14]
Three Songs, with viola (1906/07) [9:05]
Ivan Ludlow (baritone)
London Bridge Ensemble: Daniel Tong (piano), Benjamin Nabarro (violin), Kate Gould (cello), Tom Dunn (viola)
rec. 18-20 February 2007, Wathen Hall, St. Paul’s School, London
Song texts included

This review is for a CD release issued back in 2008. It is, however, an important album of English chamber music and some songs, which has only recently come to my notice. The London Bridge Ensemble has chosen an engaging programme. There are four relatively early chamber works, in particular the substantial Phantasie Piano Trio and Phantasie Piano Quartet, and eleven songs.

It does not seem that long ago that Bridge was known more as Benjamin Britten’s composition teacher than for his prowess as a composer. Thankfully, there has been a steady revaluation of Bridge’s accomplishments. He is now generally recognised as an important and influential English composer. Bridge’s aptitude as a chamber music performer must have been significant advantage with his compositions in his area. Bridge wrote a trio of works in the Phantasie format required for the Phantasy competitions sponsored by Walter Willson Cobbett: a single-span work in an arch form with the emphasis on thematic integration. Cobbett also commissioned a number of works in the Phantasie form. Incidentally, Bridge used the spelling Phantasie.

First in 1905 Bridge wrote his Phantasie String Quartet in F minor that was awarded a special prize in the first Cobbett Chamber Music Competition. The London Bridge Ensemble recorded this Phantasie Quartet together with the Piano Quintet (1904/05 rev. 1912) on a later 2010 release on Dutton Epoch (review).

Written in 1907, the Phantasie Piano Trio in C minor (Piano Trio No.1) won first prize in the 1908 Cobbett Chamber Music Competition. This continued success marked Bridge out as one the foremost composers of the younger generation. In my view, this entirely engaging C minor score is one of the precious gems of chamber English music. Brazenly heart-on-sleeve Bridge is displaying his passionate side. Bridge’s love of engaging melody is shown in the pair of squally and intense Allegros that open and close the score; they are played energetically, with considerable expression. Steeped in introspection, the short Andante is performed with an aching tenderness that much surely represents a love affair. Incorporated into slow movement is the buoyant and carefree Scherzo.

Cobbett clearly admired Bridge’s talent and commissioned a work from him in the Phantasie form. In response Bridge wrote in 1910 his Phantasie Piano Quartet in F sharp minor. This is an excellent score. I recall reading that music critic Edwin Evans at that time considered this to be Bridge’s finest composition. Of the two Phantasie works here, the Piano Quartet with its seven tempo indications is less strict in following the guidelines Cobbett set down. Right from the opening bars, immediately noticeable is the unashamedly romantic writing so passionate and affecting in the hands of London Bridge Ensemble. To my ears, the influence of Fauré and Richard Strauss is never far away. As with the Phantasie Trio, the stormy passions of the Allegro provide a striking contrast with the romantic tender compassion of the Andante con moto movements.

Written in 1901 and revised the following year, the Scherzo for cello and piano is an early piece. Deftly played by cellist Kate Gould and Daniel Tong, this is a highly attractive if rather inconsequential morsel, suitable for the salon. In the assured hands of violinist Benjamin Nabarro accompanied by Daniel Tong, the Souvenir for violin and piano from 1904 is revealed as a charming if introspective work with a sense of tender longing.

There is strong competition in the catalogue for recording of the Phantasie Piano Trio and Phantasie Piano Quartet. Notable in the Phantasie Piano Trio are the accounts by the Bernard Roberts Piano Trio on Black Box, Dartington Piano Trio on Hyperion, and Jack Liebeck, Alexander Chaushian and Ashley Wass on Naxos. I also admire the accounts by Hyung-ki Joo, Rafał Zambrzycki-Payne and Thomas Carroll on Paladino Music, and the Dimension Piano Trio on Champs Hill Records, which includes in its personnel Zambrzycki-Payne and Carroll. Excellent too in the Phantasie Piano Quartet are the recordings by the Nash Ensemble on Hyperion; Maggini Quartet with Martin Roscoe (piano) on Naxos, and the Tunnell Trio with Brian Hawkins (viola) on Lyrita. Despite all those recordings of high quality, the performances by the London Bridge Ensemble are certainly the equal if not superior, and will be my first port of call.

According to the lists I have seen, Bridge wrote forty-five songs. Here we have eleven mainly early songs, sung by baritone Ivan Ludlow, eight of which have piano accompaniment and three have viola support. The songs are well chosen indeed, with Ludlow in excellent voice throughout displaying his sable timbre, splendid phrasing and impressive expression. My preference is for the set of three songs for voice and viola that are quite exquisite settings. Highlights are Ludlow’s performances of Arnold’s text Far, far from Each Other, vividly evoking the pain of parting, and Music, when soft Voices die to a Shelley text, a striking portrayal of the memories and intense pain of losing a loved one. For those wanting a recording of the complete Frank Bridge Songs, it is hard to beat the collection on Hyperion by soloists Janice Watson, Louise Winter, Jamie MacDougall and Gerald Finley accompanied by Roger Vignoles (piano) and Roger Chase (viola).

The helpful booklet essay by Giles Easterbrook adds merit to this well presented Dutton issue. It is pleasing to report that full song texts are included in the booklet.

For the two Phantasie works alone this Dutton release is recommendable but the addition of eleven songs makes a valuable bonus. Unequivocally this is one of the finest albums of British chamber music I have heard.

Michael Cookson



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