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8.223637 - TOVEY / BRIDGE: Cello Sonatas
Donald Francis Tovey (1875–1940) • Frank Bridge (1879–1941)
Donald Francis Tovey and Frank Bridge were two of England’s most important composer-performers of the first part of the present century. Tovey was best known as scholar and writer on music, and he had a unique career as solo and chamber-music pianist. His conducting was sloppy but he brought great insight to his interpretations. Bridge was a polished conductor, who often filled in as an emergency conductor for important concerts. He was an excellent violist. Both composers gave special attention to the composition and performance of chamber music.
For many years Tovey and Robert Hausmann, cellist of the Joachim Quartet, had been close friends. They had given many performances together. In January 1909 Hausmann died in his sleep. Tovey wrote his Elegiac Variations in memory of his friend shortly afterwards. They were performed the following October by the composer and the great cellist Pablo Casals. To me the sombre mood of the piece portrays Tovey’s deep sadness. Virtuoso interplay between the two instruments perhaps alludes to the joy they had performing together.
Tovey’s cello sonata was written earlier. During 1895, while on holiday and travelling around Britain, he wrote about a visit with “the delightfully quiet and gay and intellectual Cornishes and their absurd live seagulls and cormorants, and the pompous Chester and the seafog with the glassy water, and the clear ring of cold gray sky with a perspective of cold gray clouds seven layers deep”, have suddenly turned into extremely gay and jovial Cello Sonata in F major. Although the work was completed in 1900, it was first published in 1910.
The first movement, marked Allegrissimo, which is in sonata-form, starts with a lively theme in the piano, to which the cello adds a bass-line from the third bar on. This is developed before a second theme enters in the accompanied cello. Except for minims (half-notes) at the end this theme is entirely of crotchets (quarter-notes) and quavers (eight notes). It is expressive without being sentimental, which is a characteristic of the composer. After the themes are elaborated in the development section, a climax over a pedal-point trill is followed by a passage leading to a recapitulation of the first part, starting with the melody in the cello. An expansive coda ends the movement.
The second movement, marked Andante cantabile, is reminiscent of a Brahms intermezzo in form and character. This ABA form starts with a beautiful melody in the cello accompanied by a relatively simple harmonisation in the piano. This is followed by a darker section in the minor. The return of the first section is a transformation of the original. The spirit but not the letter of Brahms prevails throughout the movement.
The magical atmosphere is broken by the opening of the last movement, marked Vivace giocoso ma non presto, a sonata-rondo. After the first theme is expanded upon, a more lyrical theme enters in the cello, accompanied by an attractive counter-theme in the piano. This is also expanded upon before a section with the interval of a fifth as a pedal-point catches our attention. After a return to the first theme, the development section starts with a fugato based on the end of this theme. Later the first theme sneaks back in minor tonality, first using a portion of the theme before stating the theme fully from its start. The second theme returns, and then unexpectedly a completely new theme enters in the piano alone. This more peaceful cantabile theme, together with its development, can be compared to the eye of the storm. After along rest in both instruments a passage starts softly and builds up to a fortissimo as the first theme enters in diminution, before sinking back to its original key and speed. The first theme is varied in its return and is followed by a vivace flourish, which ends the movement.
Frank Bridge’s Scherzo for cello and piano was called Scherzetto for cello and piano in its first version, probably revised for the cellist Ivor James, a colleague of the composer in the English String Quartet. The piece is full of the frolics and sentiment of a young man. His Melodie, first scored for violin and piano, is dated 1911. The revision for cello and piano has a quiet ending. In its final form it is dedicated to the cellist Felix Salmond. Finely coloured harmonies and romantic melodicism bring to mind Europe before the First World War.
An important influence on Bridge was Walter Wilson Cobbett. Cobbett tried to link the Elizabethan with the Jacobean age of music by setting up competitions for single-movement “Phantasies”. Bridge won first prize in one of these competitions. Cobbett encouraged a different approach to unity and diversity in which different speeds, moods, and textures occur in a single thematically inter-connected sectional movement. This related back to the English Elizabethan Fancy. Cobbett included many composers, even Tovey, to try his idea. In the cello sonata we see Cobbett’s influence in the inter-connected last movement as well as in thematic connections between the two movements. Bridge originally planned a four-movement work, which he then compressed into two.
Bridge’s cello sonata was written between 1913 and 1917. The first movement, marked Allegro ben moderato, starts with a gorgeous long flexible line in the cello as the first theme in a sonata form. At first it is accompanied by quavers (eighth notes) in the piano. Unlike some of his other works, the Piano Quintet and Phantasy Trio, for example, the piano does not only support the melody. With motivic intrusions it adds dramatic dialogue. Sweeping rhetoric permeates a good part of this sonata. Shortly after the beginning a syncopated figure enters in the piano. Later it is taken over by the cello and leads to a climax during which a melody in the cello is given which later is transformed to the opening theme of the second movement. A descending passage, as the music subsides, leads to a sostenuto theme played on the piano with no figuration, but with subtle harmonic colouring. This second theme is restated in the cello followed by the first theme played tranquillo. Gradually the music returns to its original tempo. During this time we have a short passage in parallel fourths in the piano. Bridge’s use of parallel fourths, fifths, and triads in this sonata was not a characteristic of his earlier music. After the recapitulation a short coda, in which the cello plays the first theme in augmentation, ends quietly.
The second movement starts Adagio ma non troppo with a theme in the piano derived from a passage in the cello during the first movement. After two bars of cello the theme is repeated in the piano again. After a cello solo another theme enters in the cello accompanied by parallel fifths in the piano. A new element is added shortly thereafter with a melody divided between the two instruments in a fragmentary way. Accompanied by parallel triads in the piano a rather bucolic theme follows, which sounds like an English folk-song. It then goes on to a molto allegro in the piano. This scherzo-like section starts on four descending semitones, which return constantly in the lower registers of both instruments. Suggestions of melodies of the slow section melt old with new. The slow section then returns with the bucolic theme we heard before, which was accompanied by parallel fifths. Now it is pieced together with fragments of thematic material from the movement’s opening section. Later the cello enters with the first theme in its original key, which then makes its way to a fortissimo climax. The following coda, based on the first theme of the first movement, now in the major, brings the sonata to a vigorous conclusion.
This sonata was first performed in 1917 by Felix Salmond and William Murdoch at the Wigmore Hall in London. According to Antonia Butler, a cellist who gave the first performance of the work in France in 1928, Bridge was in utter despair over the futility of the First World War and the state of the world, and would walk round Kensington in the early hours of the morning unable to get any rest or sleep. It was at this time that the idea of the slow movement came to him. One can hear a further development in style in the second movement, which he wrote during the war. His musical style after the sonata is so extreme that it suggests an inner change of the composer himself. It is possible that his revulsion at war propelled him into using the language of the twentieth century. The First World War was a shattering experience for Bridge. A new scale of values undermined his artistic world so that he had to change. Tovey and Bridge both started their careers under a strong influence of the German Romantics, especially Brahms. Even in his most advanced compositions Bridge never forgot his heritage of principles of thematic development and harmonically conceived structure. Joseph Joachim said of all the younger musicians “Tovey is assuredly the one who would have most interested Brahms”. After 1913 Tovey composed little. Perhaps this was an admission that his creative world was no longer valid. Tovey’s conservatism was inspired and personal. His music has been neglected because he did not expand into new directions. Bridge had little success with his later works for the opposite reason. Composers who followed the middle of the road had more success in England between the two World Wars.
© 1994 David Apter
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