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Penguin Guide, January 2009

BRIDGE: Piano Music, Vol. 1 8.557842
BRIDGE: Piano Music, Vol. 2 8.557921

Bridge’s writing has a pensive simplicity, an almost ingenuous quality which is all his own. The Three Pieces are from 1912, and the first, Columbine, is a deliciously inconsequential portrait in waltz-time, and the third, a Romance, is charmingly and delicately understated. The other early works, A Fairy Tale, The Hour Glass and the Miniature Pastorals, all written between 1917 and 1920, are delightfully impressionistic miniatures. Solitude and Sunset, two of the Three Poems of 1914/15, with which Wass chooses to end the recital, are lined to similarly evocative orchestral works; but the most concentrated in feeling is the central Ecstasy, gently simmering. Wass’s performances are totally sympathetic throughout, he is beautifully recorded, and this programme will give much pleasure.

Much of this music was influenced by the composer’s response to the slaughter of the First World War. The Piano Sonata, written between 1921 and 1924, is a formidable work, with its considerable dissonance arising from bi-tonal and very chromatic harmony. But the organic development of the ideas introduced at the opening of the first movement is as impressive as the shifts in mood and character throughout. There is calm in the elegiac Andante, but the powerful dissertation returns in the finale and, after the climax, the introductory material is reintroduced, and the work ends equivocally. Reward for the listener then comes in the touchingly beautiful Lament for Catherine (a child drowned in the Lusitania). The three tellingly atmospheric Improvisations for the Left Hand (At Dawn, A Vigil and A Revel) were composed for a pianist who had lost his arm in the war. But the Three Sketches make a charming interlude from violence (looking back nostalgically), and the programme ends with a dazzling Scherzettino which Ashley Wass plays with delicious precision. This is a real showpiece, but he is truly at home in all this music and is admirably recorded.

Martin Anderson
International Piano, December 2006

The carnage of the First World War provoked a stylistic watershed in the music of Frank Bridge, tipping him even further from the late-Romantic confidence of his early scores into a chromatic and anguished quasi-modernity. The work in which this new manner is generally said to find its most complete expression is the Piano Sonata of 1921-4 - 'his piano masterpiece', the blurb on the back of the jewel case seeks to confirm. I have to break rank here: for all the fine music in the Sonata, I find it a structural drag, insufficiently contrasted, even self-indulgent in its bleakness (although the sincerity of the impulse is undeniable).

The seven suites of miniatures on this CD- the first volume of a promised complete edition of Bridge's piano music - provide a series of stepping stones to the Sonata, since they begin with the Three Pieces of 1912 and end with In Autumn (two pieces) of 1924. And they reveal that Bridge's stylistic conversion was poised to happen anyway: the war was the catalyst, not the cause. Time and again, Bridge posits innocence, and betrays it: even as early as the first of the Three Pieces, a naive waltz briefly reveals potential violence; the following Minuet is nervous and insecure, and the concluding Romance is shot through with sadness. The tendency to disquiet becomes stronger in each set as the war progresses; In Autumn is every bit as bleak - although not as angry- as the Sonata.

What's especially interesting is the psychology of a man who thought he was writing miniatures for the salon market and could yet produce a series of pieces as emotionally troubling as recorded here. The harmonic idiom is generally unsettled; there are numerous 'happy' numbers here, but the happiness is short-lived: something twists in the narrative to expose the good humour as falsely premised.

The virtuosity required here is not of the Lisztian pyrotechnical sort: there is very little by way of overt keyboard showmanship. What the music demands instead is acute sensitivity if touch and the ability to project mood and atmosphere, often with little more than a few bluesy chords and tendrils of arpeggios. This is poetry as much as it is music, and Ashley Wass finds exactly the right tone, coaxing out Bridge's bashful and troubling message. The pioneering Peter Jacobs was the only pianist to come this way before, with a complete Bridge piano music on Continuum; the distributor tells me those discs are 'long gone'. Even with more recent competition from Mark Bebbington (SOMMCD 056-see IP Sept/Oct 2006). Wass holds his own; the give-away Naxos price and excellent recorded sound are icing on the cake.

American Record Guide, October 2006

Ashley Wass is fast becoming a major figure in recording the piano music of the British Isles. Now that Peter Jacobs's fine Bridge series on Continuum has been withdrawn, finding it may require paying a hefty price. With two more volumes to go, can Wass adequately fill the gap, and does Naxos come up, once again, with a low-priced winner? The answer to both questions is most likely yes.

Frank Bridge is a great composer who has been shamefully neglected in the world's concert halls. His music has a fastidious craftsmanship and a wide-eyed creativity from his earliest post-Brahms mode to his later, more advanced harmonic techniques. Except for his powerful sonata (not here), his piano music consists of miniatures of considerable charm and, sometimes, sadness. If hardly reflective of his best work for orchestra, they are still enjoyable in an emotionally less challenging way.

Fairy Tale Suite from 1917 consists of four movements beginning with 'The Princess' and ending with the object of her affections, 'The Prince'. In between we have 'The Ogre', and 'The Spell', so write your own scenario. The 'Princess' is a little waltz (what else?), and 'The Ogre' is appropriately gruff and grotesque. Both Jacobs and Wass handle the impressionist textures with great skill and affection. That is also the case with The Hour Glass and its three fairy tale movements. Although Wass tends to linger a little longer over the music, his phrasing and inflections are beautifully handled.

The program is rounded out with Set I of Miniature Pastorals, Three Lyrics, Three Poems, Three 1912 Pieces, and In Autumn. Each is a lyrical gem, and all avoid anything that could be construed as Britishisms. If anything, the music reflects the influence of Fauré, Ravel, and Debussy-all in the context of the salon.

Andrew Burn's notes are reasonably complete, and the sound is fine. Those who already have the Peter Jacobs records need not rush out to replace them as this series progresses. The excellent caricature of Bridge on the Continuum covers is a loss that will be regretted, but collectors need have no fear in acquiring this wonderful start to Ashley Wass's series.

Colin Anderson
MUSO, July 2006

After their great success with the piano music of Arnold Bax, Naxos and Ashley Wass now turn their attention to Frank Bridge (1879-1941).

This British composer enjoyed a fine reputation as a violist, conductor and teacher whose pupils included Benjamin Britten. As a composer he has become increasingly admired, his style developing dramatically as he absorbed musical advances prevalent in continental Europe.

This first of what will be three volumes of Bridge piano music is devoted to miniatures - 21 pieces (grouped as suites) of compassionate, exquisite and stimulating invention. If not fully representative of Bridge's range (the Piano Sonata will demonstrate this on a future volume) there is much that is lyrically entrancing and atmospherically compelling about this music.

This is food for the soul and the imagination, with titles including The Princess, Heart's Ease, Romance, Solitude, and Sunset. These very sympathetic renditions from Ashley Wass persuasively reveal Bridge's compositions as engagingly delightful, and sometimes more than that. With excellent recording and informative annotation, this release is a winner.

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