, October 2006
Radical and conservative: which aspect of Frank Bridge do you know best or prefer?
You may realize that my opening gambit is also the title of Anthony Payne’s succinct but very useful book on Bridge (Thames, London, 1994) emphasising the extraordinary change that came over his style approximately by the end of the First War. What is curious is that although he was never a strongly English composer in a pastoral sense, having always had a foot in the French and indeed in the Germanic, Romantic camps, after the war he became even more influenced by developments in Germany and central Europe. By time of the 3rd String Quartet (1925) you feel that Bridge has been feeding on a surfeit of Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s 2nd Quartet and certainly Alban Berg with whom he seems to have had a very special affinity. He appears to all intents and purposes to be a completely different composer from the one we encounter here, who arranges ‘Sally in our Alley’ and ‘Londonderry Air’. And yet … and yet, there are moments in these early pieces, and this disc is totally devoted to his first phase, when one feels that the seeds of his later style are beginning to form. As Payne remarks “From the outset of his career Bridge had possessed an exceptionally enquiring mind and was alert to new developments of style and language”.
Many collectors will know that Naxos have recorded with Maggini Quartet two discs of Bridge’s Quartets Numbers 2 and 4 (8.557283) and 1 and 3 (8.557269). This disc of mostly slighter pieces was brought out in the mid-1990s at the time Anthony Payne prepared the new edition of his book. It has, I believe, been re-launched to fit with a complete Bridge String Quartets project.
It seems odd that during the very darkest days of World War I, Bridge was writing little arrangements of folk-songs for the parlour. As I have said, after the war he took on another hue, but before it we have several of these charming works which constitute a major part of his chamber music. I’ve no doubt that he was able to make a little money on them, but we should not overlook how well they are put together - composed in fact. For example in the ‘Londonderry Air’ the tune only gradually emerges. I was reminded of Bridge’s most important pupil Benjamin Britten whose ‘Lachrymae’ only exposes Dowland’s famous theme at the end. I wonder if that’s where Britten got the idea? ‘Sir Roger de Coverley’ has an extended counter-subject towards the end of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to fight with. In ‘Sally in our Alley’ we hear the melody only in a fragmentary state before it finally appears at the end of its four minutes of clever counterpoint.
The three ‘Novelletten’ recall in their title Schumann and indeed are suitably miniature. These works foreshadow the Bridge of later years especially in the regular shifts of tonality in the first movement and in the chromatics of parts of the second. Sometimes Debussian harmonies also creep across the horizon. It is, I suspect, these first three works (Phantasy Quartet, ‘Novelletten’ and ‘Three Idylls’) that make the disc particularly valuable.
There are three works by Bridge with the title ‘Phantasie’. The idea was that of W.W Cobbett who wanted contemporary composers to revive the Elizabethan Phantasy or Fantasy form and who put up a substantial prize for a competition. In Bridge’s case it stimulated an all-important approach to form which lived with him all of his life. As well as this quartet, his first attempt, we have the Phantasie Piano Trio which is quite a long work of 1907. It won the Cobbett prize. Then there’s the Phantasie Piano Quartet of 1910. I heard a rare performance of the trio recently at the Lake District Summer Music Festival played wonderfully by very young performers. For me it is the finest of the three, however the Magginis make out the best case for the Quartet that I have ever heard. It is in three fairly equal sections which should follow without a break although they are separately tracked on the CD. It starts with a bold Baxian gesture, followed by a March tune. By the finale the music has metamorphosed into a lighter mood. To me it lacks the necessary Phantasy elements, the continuous contrapuntal development which Cobbett really expected and which Bridge was so successfully to achieve in the other two works.
The ‘Three Idylls’ are often dark and intense but also very lyrical. Here Ravel is suggested especially the String Quartet. These are most attractive little pieces, three in all, which should be much better known.
The final work on the disc is the world premiere recording of ‘Three Pieces’ which I have to say are there mainly for those with a ‘completist’ sensibility.
This disc then is a fine supplement to the Maggini’s Bridge cycle. It seems to me that the players are in complete accord with the style and needs of the composer. They have, after all been living with this music for practically a decade. They throw another light on the composer. It all adds to the burgeoning view that he has been much neglected and that he ranks surely alongside his contemporary Holst as one of the finest British composers of the first half of the twentieth century.