About this Recording
8.557283 - BRIDGE: Phantasy / String Quartets Nos. 2 and 4
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Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
String Quartet No. 2 • Phantasy Quartet • String Quartet No. 4

Frank Bridge studied violin and composition at the Royal College of Music where he was a pupil of Stanford from 1899 to 1903. Apart from composition, his career embraced performance (he was the violist in several quartets, most notably the English String Quartet), conducting (he frequently deputised for Sir Henry Wood), and teaching (Britten being his bestknown pupil). Perhaps no other British composer of the first half of the century reveals such a stylistic journey in his music. His early works, such as the First String Quartet (1906), the Phantasy Piano Trio (1907) and the orchestral suite The Sea (1910-11), follow in the late- Romantic tradition bearing a kinship with Fauré; subsequently, in the orchestral tone poem Summer (1914-5), for instance, Bridge comes close to the orbit of Delius. After the First World War, however, his music became intense and chromatic as in the Scriabinesque Piano Sonata (1921-4). The radical language of the sonata was pursued in his chamber works of the 1920s, so that in the Third String Quartet (1926) Bridge rubs shoulders with the early works of the Second Viennese School. Also to this decade belong two orchestral masterpieces, Enter Spring (1927) and Oration (1930). Finding little favour with public or critics his late work, for example the Fourth String Quartet (1934-8), languished, and despite Britten’s advocacy it was not until the 1970s that Bridge’s remarkable legacy received the attention it deserved.

At the outset of his career Bridge established his name through a series of chamber works in which he demonstrated impeccable craftsmanship and a wholly idiomatic understanding of string instruments, with the viola, his own main instrument, frequently having prominence. A further influence on the form of these works was the prizes instituted by Walter Wilson Cobbett, an amateur musician whose interests were chamber music and the period of the Elizabethan and Jacobean composers. In particular Cobbett was interested in the instrumental ‘fantasy’ or ‘phantasy’ form of that time in which several unrelated but varied sections formed the basis for an extended work. In 1905 he established a prize for chamber compositions in one movement and Bridge submitted several works for Cobbett’s competitions, winning first prize in 1907 and 1915. What was significant though was that Bridge adapted aspects of the phantasy form within subsequent compositions, so that thematic unity within a work of one or several movements became a hallmark of his compositions.

The Second String Quartet was composed in 1914- 15 in response to Cobbett’s fourth competition for the best string quartet in either sonata form, suite or phantasy form. Entries were finally divided into those who wrote sonatas and those who wrote phantasies, with Bridge’s quartet winning the former. The London String Quartet gave the première in 1915 and the quartet may be heard as a transitional work between Bridge’s early and later styles; there is a clear advance in its harmonic language with an increased use of chromaticism and motivic elements within the textures to bind the work together. It is undoubtedly Bridge’s first chamber masterwork.

Without any preamble the first violin launches into the main theme of the opening movement which dips and rises in a lyrical contour and features triplets. Bursts of rhythmic energy follow, but these give way to a nostalgic expansive second principal theme given initially to the viola to reveal its expressive range over oscillating triplets. A slow coda of pensive beauty based on both main themes concludes the movement. The degree to which phantasy form affected Bridge’s structural thinking is apparent in the scherzo where an extended slow middle section is incorporated rather than a conventional trio. Thematic integration is also evident with triplets once again dominating the landscape of the breezy, airy scherzo and spawning new ideas which in turn become the main melody of the Andante con moto. This theme is also related to material from Bridge’s tone poem Summer which he interrupted composing in order to write the quartet. The finale is an arch structure, opening with a slow section in which the first movement’s second theme is transformed. Similarly the main themes of the Allegro vivace can both be related to previous ideas. The pattering figure like dappled light also bears similarity to the opening of Summer and overall the music becomes more optimistic until in a master-stoke Bridge weaves in both themes from the first movement.

The Phantasy for piano quartet was Bridge’s third work cast in phantasy form, and was one of eleven works for differing chamber forces commissioned by Cobbett. Composed during 1909-10, it was dedicated to Cobbett and given its première by the Henkel Piano Quartet in 1911. In terms of Bridge’s career it comes towards the end the early period when he was not venturing out of a late nineteenth-century harmonic language. It is also one of the finest works that arose out of Cobbett’s initiative, partly because its symmetrical arch structure brings a strong cohensive logic to its sequence of introduction and slow movement; scherzo, trio, scherzo; slow movement and coda.

The quartet opens with a passionate introductory gesture for the whole ensemble before the piano plays a lyrical, undulating theme shot through with sadness which forms the main idea of the opening section. It is taken up by the cello and leads to a warmer second theme that is constantly aspiring upwards and culminates in a quasi Brahmsian harmonic sequence. A puckish scherzo follows. It scampers impishly along to reach with the trio the middle of the overall arch form of the quartet. Here the introductory ideas of the quartet return. The journey back begins with a recapitulation of the scherzo, then the introduction itself now truncated and for cello alone. Second time around the slow music is developed and rises to an ardent climax as the ideas are reviewed, before a tranquil coda brings the work to an end in the calm of the major key.

The Fourth String Quartet was dedicated to Bridge’s American friend and patroness, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. It was composed in 1937 with the première taking place in 1938, performed by the Gordon String Quartet, at Mrs Coolidge’s Berkshire Festival of Chamber Music in Massachusetts. The work follows the developments Bridge had made in his Third Quartet in its use of chromatic dissonance; however, as the Bridge scholar Anthony Payne has observed, its formal structure has a more classical approach with a clear-cut sonata-form first movement, followed by a minuet and a rondo finale.

The opening movement embraces several swiftly changing moods and directions, contrasting energy and tenderness. After a brief call to attention by the viola, the athletic principal theme is introduced on the first violin. Instructions to the players that pepper the score such as ‘agitato’, ‘frenetico’ and ‘impetuoso’ give the clue to the character of the fast music. By contrast, the second main idea is an outburst of singing lyricism for the viola. Bridge follows this opening drama not with a slow movement but one with an intermezzo-like quality. It is not, however, in the relaxed vein as the term might suggest; instead it is a sinister minuet built from the obsessive rhythm of the opening bar. Here is a world of twilight shadows with the omnipresent rhythm offset by outpourings of haunted melody frequently exploiting the dark hues of the viola. In the concluding rondo Bridge blows away the mood of the preceding movement with music which proceeds by leaps and bounds and increasingly takes on a confident character. Such is the integrated thematic quality of the whole work that allusions are made to the minuet’s rhythm, and just before the final appearance of the rondo theme both subjects of the first movement are worked into the music in a masterly fashion. A swift, bracing and affirmative coda brings to an end the apogee of Bridge’s contribution to the genre of the string quartet.

Andrew Burn


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