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Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
CD 1

String Quartet No. 3 (1927) [29:58]
String Quartet No. 4 (1937) [22:27]
CD 2

Piano Trio No. 2 (1929) [30:36]
Phantasy Piano Quartet (1910) [12:45]
Miniatures for Piano Trio (Set 3) (c. 1907 pub. 1915) [8:42]
Allegri Quartet (Hugh Maguire (violin); David Roth (violin); Patrick Ireland (viola); Bruno Schrecker (cello))
Tunnell Trio (John Tunnell (violin); Charles Tunnell (cello); Susan Tunnell (piano)); Brian Hawkins (viola)
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, December 1971 (CD 1); Christ Church, Chelsea December 1976 (CD 2). ADD 2CDs for the price of one
LYRITA SRCD.302 [52:29 + 52:08]




The top line is that this ‘new’ release from Lyrita is essential listening for all enthusiasts of British music in general and Frank Bridge in particular. It is great to see the results of two classic chamber music analogue sessions back on the market.

I intend to consider these CDs in chronological order rather than that given on the track-listings above.

The Miniatures for Piano Trio (Set 3) is a melancholy little collection. They were written well before the Great War but were not published until 1915. The opening movement is anything but a typical Russian Dance – at least not of the flamboyant variety. Somehow I feel that there is a touch of ‘England’ in this music. The Hornpipe makes up for any doubt about the work’s nationality, although once again this work is not totally innocent. This is a valedictory hornpipe: the sailors do not seem to be returning home. The last movement, a March Militaire is powerful and belies the word ‘miniature’. In spite of the almost ‘end of pier’ quality of the main tune it does not bode well for future history. There is little doubt that this work is more involved than a first glance at the track-list would suggest. It is hardly surprising that it was published in 1915.

The Phantasy Quartet of 1910 was one of a number of works commissioned by Walter Wilson Cobbett. He approached eleven British composers and asked them to each produce a work for a variety of instrumental combinations. Bridge was presented with that for piano quartet. Edwin Evans suggests the lack of a time constraint on this piece allowed Bridge to produce what is his personal best work in this form; perhaps even excelling most of the other composers’ efforts. The Phantasy is marked by a directness of language and a reasonably traditional harmonic writing. It fair to say that Bridge is moving away from his earlier style yet there are intimations of the more complex works of the post-Great War years. This is not to suggest that the work is somehow deficient, because it is a transitional work. The Phantasy actually shows Bridge as supremely confident with his material. He is both ‘refined and eloquent’ and often passionate. The piece is written in a typical ‘Phantasy style’ – an andante followed by a scherzo and trio before finally referring back to the opening music. It is not too much to say that this work is a beautiful and satisfying example of both the ‘Phantasy’ form and the Piano Quartet.

Bridge’s Third String Quartet is the perhaps the first important example of his hiatus of musical style. It is clear, from even the most cursory hearing, that this work is influenced by Bela Bartók and Alban Berg. It seems to be a million miles away from Bridge’s orchestral works such as The Sea or even the Second Quartet. It is obvious that Frank Bridge was looking to Europe for his ‘new’ musical language. Yet, as Paul Griffiths points out in his history of genre, it is also patent that the composer never quite manages to "screen out the wandering Englishness that he had espoused in his earlier quartets …"

Interestingly, Bridge was totally satisfied with this Quartet: he wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge "that this score contains the best of me, I do not doubt.’

The work is quite long, lasting more than half an hour and is fairly evenly divided up into three movements. Edwin Evans notes that the slow movement of this work recruited friends for this quartet that were not yet ready to "bestow approval on the allegros." It is true that there is a certain wistfulness in this middle movement that is not apparent in the other two. These outer movements are characterised by the use of all twelve semitones, the abandonment of octave doublings and a certain fragmentation of line. The constructional principles appear to be motivic development. These are expanded and contracted in an elaborate web of sound.

It is often hard for a music critic to balance head and heart. Everything tells me that this is a masterpiece and I do not mean just other writers and reviewers. There is something about this music that makes one know that you are in the presence of a great composer. Yet my heart tells me that I am a long way from regarding this work as a personal favourite. However my respect and love for Frank Bridge tells me that I will persevere.

The Piano Trio No.2 is a difficult work. For anyone brought up on the orchestral tone poem Summer, the Suite for Strings or the song Go Not Happy Day and some of the piano pieces, it is a different world – if not universe. It is perhaps easier on the ear than the hard-bitten Third Quartet, yet it is never going to be an ‘easy’ listen. The programme notes suggest that the Trio is Bridge’s chamber music masterpiece. I know that Anthony Payne would agree with that statement. I consider this a great work, yet give me Bridge’s earlier chamber works any day for sheer indulgence and enjoyment. Yet the other side of the coin is that it is a work that we feel we must get to know. I have listened to this Trio twice for this review and a number of times over the years. I would be being dishonest if I said I understand or even ‘enjoy’ it – but slowly some of its secrets and beauties are revealed to me.

This music cannot be described as obviously ‘English’ - or belonging to any other national language. It is often easy to see passages of Scriabin, Berg, Bartok and Schoenberg in these pages but I suggest that Bridge has used these composers’ methods to create a personal language.

The Fourth String Quartet is a bit like Janus – it faces in two directions. On the one hand, the harmonic dissonances and contrapuntal language of the Third Quartet is obvious. Yet Anthony Payne has remarked that the formal structure of the work is more ‘classical’ with its ‘clear cut sonata-form first movement, followed by a minuet and a rondo finale." Rob Barnett notes that this work is still that of a romantic, in spite of the obvious influences of the Second Viennese School. Once again the work was dedicated to Mrs Coolidge and was first given 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. Yet the end product is a fine addition to the string quartet repertory. The ‘note’ of Englishness has never quite left the imagination of this great composer. It was his last great work - with the exception of Rebus and the promise of the unfinished Symphony for Strings.

These CDs derive from two LPs issued by Argo in the nineteen-seventies. I was only able to afford the ‘Trio’ in those days – so it is fantastic to have the Allegri Quartet edition of the Third and Fourth Quartets after all these years. I would not wish to choose between the Maggini, the Brindisi and the Allegri versions of these two great works. I will simply say that there are two dozen recordings of the Bartók String Quartets. There are three or four of the Bridge. There can never be too many editions of this cycle of British string quartets by one of our country’s greatest composers. The same sentiment applies to the Trio and the Phantasy Quartet. Lyrita have to be congratulated for reissuing these fine recordings.

John France

see also review by Ewan McCormick

Lyrita Catalogue

 







 


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