The Flying Inkpot
, December 2004
"Frank Bridge has unfairly been pigeonholed in musical history as the composition teacher of Benjamin Britten. Bridge was a composer of considerable worth and talent whose works were increasingly ignored by his public and peers – perhaps because of their extreme timeliness as to what was going on in classical music at the time. Even Britten’s advocacy of his teacher’s works did not help, and Bridge’s works – especially the later ones – slipped into obscurity.
With passionate and winning contributions from the Maggini Quartet, we are shown a glimpse of either end of Bridge’s career – one of his more accepted early works paired with one of its later, more daring counterparts. Hopefully, it will help right a great wrong.
Bridge (right) wrote his first string quartet within a month in 1906 for a competition sponsored by the Accademia Filharmonica, Bologna. The notes for this disc point out that, of the 67 compositions submitted for this competition, only Bridge’s received a mention d’honneur. The composer wrote the work in such haste, however, that he neglected to copy a second set of parts before sending the work to Italy, and he did not receive his manuscript back from the Accademia for two and a half years. The quartet received its much belated premiere by the London String Quartet in 1909.
It is easy to hear why Bridge’s piece garnered such high praise. It is well written, thematically unified while also employing what was called phantasy form, in which several unrelated but varied sections form the basis for an extended work. While ever-changing in character and providing a contrasts that keeps from tiring the listeners’ minds and ears, the sections are on the whole sunny, easygoing and engagingly tuneful. The First stays long enough to make a favorable impression while not allow its charms to wear out the work’s welcome.
In other words, the Bridge First could stand alongside the works of Vaughan-Williams, Delius and other British composers writing at the same time – almost generically so. It is distinctive yet not overly original or memorable, and proves Charles Ives’ statement that prizes were the awards for mediocrity. The Bridge First does stay in the mind and ear, but not for very long.
The Third String Quartet is entirely different and illustrates the central irony in Bridge’s musical career – that as he got much better and much more distinctive, he also found himself increasingly ignored. Commissioned by modern music champion Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1926, the Third is a tougher, thornier but extremely rewarding work to get to know. Stylistically, it has much in common with the works of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. (Coolodge would later commission Schoenberg to write his Fourth String Quartet for her.) While not leaping headlong into the 12-tone school, Bridge does keep all 12 semitones of the chromatic scale constantly in play, avoids octave doublings and drives the work with a take-no-prisoners attitude.
Perhaps all this surface rigor – and many of his contemporaries’ conservative reaction to it – was what doomed this work to relative neglect. But also like the Second Viennese School, beneath the academia of Bridge’s Fourth Quartet beats a fully passionate, if not romantic heart and a considerable amount of red blood. The tunefulness of the First Quartet has matured into a rich, complex melodiousness married to an incredibly tight sense of form and virtuosic use of counterpoint. All these qualities add up to an intense and intensely moving musical statement of extreme directness that deserves a place alongside the string quartets of Bela Bartok as well as Schoenberg and Berg.
The Magginis not only play these works, especially the Third, with full conviction, but they also do an incredibly fine job of evoking the very different sound worlds of these two quartets. There is the innate sense that we are not only hearing two of Bridge’s works in comparison to one another, but also fully within the time frames in which they were written – the flickering embers of late Romanticism for the First Quartet and the bracing, hustling post-World-War-I era for the Third. This is extraordinarily tricky business since it is easy for a set of performers to sound essentially the same in playing an early and a later work of a composer side by side. But the Magginis manage this chameleon-like aspect remarkably and convincingly well.
Hopefully Naxos will release the Magginis’ championing of Bridge’s Second and Fourth Quartets very soon."