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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.

Colin Clarke
Fanfare, November 2007

The Lament for Catherine was designed as a memorial for a casualty of the sinking of the Lusitania. …Wass gives it a doleful yet somehow affectionate reading.

The Three Sketches of 1906 are titled “April,” “Rosemary,” and “Valse capricieuse,” respectively. Andrew Burn, in his excellent liner notes, refers to them as “superior examples of Edwardian salon character pieces,” and I really cannot improve on this description. Wass plays with great warmth without for a second descending into schmalz. “Rosemary” is the highlight, exquisitely fragranced; the final piece is pure nostalgia.

Michael Ponder’s recording, made at Saint George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol, U.K., is admirably clear. It is close, but not claustrophobically so, and given the intensity of much of the sonata and the dark mood of other pieces on this disc, this makes a lot of sense. © 2007 Fanfare Read complete review

Scott Cantrell
Audiophile Audition, September 2007

BRIDGE RISING: Long remembered mainly as Benjamin Britten's composition teacher, Frank Bridge (1879-1941) seems to be getting more notice these days, thanks to the enterprising Naxos label. This second Bridge disc from Ashley Wass certainly displays the British composer's pianistic range, from salon pleasantries to the big, elaborately argued 1924 Sonata.

PASTEL PRETTINESS: The earliest of the pieces here, from the first years of the 20th century, continue in the character-piece tradition of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Titles like "April," "Rosemary" and "Valse capricieuse" (in the Three Sketches of 1909) set you up for pastel prettiness, yet even here there's an enchanting, Scriabinesque elusiveness. The flickering "Scherzettino" would make a delicious recital encore.

NEW RIGOR: In the wake of World War I, widely felt in England as a sobering loss of innocence, Bridge sought a newly rigorous musical voice. Thirty-five minutes long, in three linked movements, his sole sonata for piano is a somber work stretching tonality. The hushed opening tollings seem to take up where Ravel's "Le gibet" (from Gaspard de la nuit) left off, but other precursors range from Liszt (the B-minor Sonata) to Scriabin.

BOTTOM LINE: Finely crafted and often mesmerizing music, lovingly played (although one could imagine a more muscular account of the Sonata) and beautifully recorded.

Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, August 2007

"Good to see Frank Bridge’s magnificent Piano Sonata at last coming into its own. Three years in gestation and completed in May 1924, it’s a key work in his output, the first full flowering of his mature voice and a challenging statement – but often piercingly beautiful too and always intensely felt (the score is inscribed to the memory of his good friend Ernest Farrar, a young composer killed in the trenches in 1918). ...Like Mark Bebbington before him, Ashley Wass takes an unashamedly big-scale view of this craggy music (both performances clock in at a few seconds under 35 minutes) and displays his customary sensitivity and impregnable technical armoury.... As for the remaining items, no one surely could fail to be profoundly moved by the 1915 Lament (which commemorates a child who perished when the Lusitania was torpedoed and more familiar in its reworking for string orchestra), while the Three Sketches from 1906 (and its centrepiece "Rosemary" in particular) display Bridge's supreme skills as a miniaturist to exquisite effect."

William Kreindler
MusicWeb International, July 2007

Bridge’s piano music was an important part of his output and the Piano Sonata is the pivotal piece in his entire career. His piano music was previously covered by the estimable Peter Jacobs on Continuum in 1990-91. This disc is the second volume by Ashley Wass in his Naxos survey of the Bridge piano oeuvre. It is divided pretty evenly between works from the composer’s early semi-salon days and works having some connection to the First World War. The war was to cause great changes in both Bridge’s professional and personal outlooks.

Of the pre-War works we have two sets of three, although the latter three may not have been written as a sequence. The works from 1902-3 are usually described as semi-salon works and there is a lot of the salon about them, but already - Bridge was only 23 when he wrote them - they demonstrate a sense of structure and occasionally more imagination than one would expect. The Pensées Fugitive I - there are no more - is perhaps the most interesting; fleeting enough to become almost disturbing before settling down again. Wass handles this piece well. He does not do as well with the Scherzettino, a larger piece than one might think from the title. The scope is better brought out by Peter Jacobs in his 1991 recording.

The Three Sketches were written in 1906 and again show more musical and emotional interest than one might expect. They also show an awareness of Fauré and the Impressionists that would continue in Bridge’s works of the next eight or ten years. Wass looks for the more substantial aspects of these pieces as well as emphasizing the French/Delius connection. This aspect is well brought out in the first two pieces, although sometimes at the expense of the overall conception. A different aspect of French musical culture is evidenced in the etude-like Valse capricieuse, giving Wass a chance to show more virtuosity than is required in much of the other music here.

Bridge’s Lament is one of his best-known shorter works. It was written for the daughter of family friends, all of whom perished on the Lusitania. It contains both sadness at the loss of Bridge’s friends and for what he himself would lose in the remaining years of the war. The Lament was written for strings and arranged for piano by Bridge, losing little in the translation. In his performance Wass doesn’t seem to get to the bottom of the emotional depths, although one could fault Peter Jacobs in the same way. Wass does do very well in bringing out how these pieces represent a distinct step on the way to the stylistic revelation of the Sonata.

For those unfamiliar with Bridge’s piano music the Three Improvisations may prove the most surprising and not just because they add a new work to the list of those written for pianists deprived of their right arms in the First World War. In this case the pianist and organist was Douglas Fox, later long-time music master at Clinton College and before the War an aide to Parry in the creation of his organ works. The Bridge works were written even before the war had ended and they radiate a spectral quality that is even more disturbing than the irony found in Ravel’s Concerto for the Left-Hand or the Korngold left-hand works. In At Dawn it looks like these qualities will give way to a bright dawn, but what finally occurs is only gray. The harmonic complexities in this piece and in A Vigil must have been disturbing to many listeners at the time, but A Vigil is actually quite a simple piece, but no less disturbing than its predecessor. A Revel has a watermill effect and seems less strenuous than its two companions, but its motion is relentless and unforgiving. Of all the works on this disc Wass seems to do best with this set. He brings out the dark emotions through engaging the structural and harmonic complexities of each piece. It’s very well done.

Finally we come to the Piano Sonata, the decisive work in Bridge’s output. Ashley Wass’s technical outlook on Bridge could be described as chordal and this is most evident here in his performance of the Sonata. The chordal aspect is also helped by the acoustics and the recording. He makes a good contrast between the two main themes of the first movement which form the basis of the entire work. He also emphasizes how every manifestation of the “early” Bridge is shrugged aside if not crushed by the later style. One thing that I missed was the totally natural way Bridge prepares for his recapitulation - Wass does not bring this out as well as he could.

The second movement of the Sonata is a perfect example of the arch form and Wass follows loyally. He also uses the elegiac moments of this movement to provide contrast with the mood of the second. In the last movement I found his overall pace too fast and too disturbing a contrast with what has happened in the first two movements. This treatment does succeed however in emphasizing the relentlessness of the very end of the piece.

As mentioned above the acoustical qualities of St. George’s Church, a frequent recording site, really augment Wass’s efforts. In terms of overall performance the major comparison for this disc will be found in the three discs of the Jacobs Continuum set. For me Wass produces more beautiful renditions of the music while Jacobs’ performances are better at elucidating both atmosphere and structure. However the Jacobs’ discs are very hard to come by nowadays so this and their recent provenance put Wass in an almost impregnable position. There is also the first volume of a promised complete set on Somm with Mark Bebbington (see review). I have not heard that yet but perhaps we will soon be able to compare complete cycles; something that would have seemed like a dream twenty years ago.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2007

Starting out life as a violist and conductor, composition took over Frank Bridge's life when he was turned thirty, a series of sumptuous orchestral works, much aligned to the French Impressionist School of writing, gaining critical acclaim. But the loss of so many friends in the conflict of the First World War was to scar the rest of his life, bringing about a change to his style that involved a more astringent mode. That in turn brought a decline in performances his music received, and only now has that trend been reversed. If his earlier piano scores fall into the category of ¡¥salon pieces', the three-movement sonata calls upon the soloist to shape and nurture it with that depth of understanding and feeling that is within Ashley Wass's command. Bursts of technically challenging writing in the outer movements provide the foil to the introverted central movement, Wass capturing a whole spectrum of the required subtle dynamic changes, and bringing quiet repose to the barren conclusion. The impact of the war comes in Lament for Catherine, a young child killed when a torpedo sank the passenger liner, Lusitania, the music innocent and sad, while the charming Three Improvisations were for a pianist who had lost his right arm in the war. After so much sadness, we return for the remaining works to the sophistication and pleasing early pieces. The first volume in this Bridge cycle won universal plaudits, and this is right there among the best discs of British piano playing.

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