This CD presents two major chamber works for piano quintet. Both are by well known British composers and both were largely written and revised before the Great War. Until recently neither of these works was readily available on CD or other recorded media. Interestingly, there are currently four other versions of the Bridge Quintet available (Arkiv Catalogue) but only one other of the Bax issued as a download (Chandos).
Arnold Bax’s Piano Quintet in G minor is a massive work. In fact it has been described by Lewis Foreman as reflecting a stage in his musical development that would finally result in seven powerful symphonies. The writing of this work was begun in the days leading up to the Great War and was completed in April 1915. It was to be another couple of years before the work received its first performance at a private Music Club Concert at the Savoy Hotel with Harriet Cohen as the pianist and the English String Quartet. More than two years were to pass before the Quintet was heard in public at the Wigmore Hall. Here, Fanny Davies was accompanied by the Bohemian Quartet. The work was dedicated to Bax’s champion, the music critic Edwin Evans.
The structure of this piece is on a ‘grand, expansive scale. It makes cyclic use of thematic material between the first and third movements and introduces an epilogue in the closing bars. Although much of this Quintet owes its mood and style to the prevailing post-romantic tradition, there is a good use of Celtic musical imagery. Andrew Burn is correct in pointing out the ‘myriad musical material [that] is subjected to a constant process of evolution as he exploits all manner of harmonic and instrumental colours to superb effect.’
The other competing version of Arnold Bax’s Piano Quintet in G minor is with David Owen Norris and the Mistry String Quartet released on Chandos. Furthermore, I understand that there was a recording of the work proposed in 1967 with the pianist Frank Merrick. However this was never issued. I listened to the Chandos disc as part of the preparation for my review: I certainly felt that in spite of this recording being more than twenty years old it still has much to offer. If pushed, I would say that I prefer the David Owen Norris. It seems to be more masculine and manages to capture the ‘Celtic twilight’ atmosphere more effectively. However this is not to belittle the present recording. Wass and the Tippett Quartet have coped with this large and complex work with great fortitude and sensitivity. It largely comes down to a matter of taste and preference, although the Naxos recording is some five minutes shorter that the Chandos!
Conveniently for the reviewer, Lewis Foreman, in his biography of Bax, has included a comparison between the Bridge and the Bax Quintets written by Peter J Pirie: it is worth quoting in full. “Frank Bridge wrote a fine Piano Quintet, and is a greatly underrated composer, but we have only to compare his formally perfect Quintet -strong but rather colourless and set against [the] later Bridge, unoriginal –with the smoky blaze, the bursting clumsy invention, the vast stormy landscape and crippled splendour of Bax’s Quintet to realise immediately the genius of the latter. It establishes his kind.”
I personally hold the Bridge Quintet in a higher regard, but there is no doubting the genius of Bax’s music. Perhaps it is the difference between the turbulent, troubled history and politics and the Celtic landscape of Ireland compared to a mildly disturbed meditation on life on the Sussex Downs on a windy, but warm, autumn’s day. It may be an unfair comparison, but I think it acts as a referential marker.
Frank Bridge’s Piano Quintet in D minor is a superb work that is in all honesty a high-point of post-Romantic British music. It is good that recognition of this masterpiece has finally been declared. Paul Hindmarsh has given this work the catalogue number H49a implying that there was an earlier edition of this Quintet. In fact, the original work was composed between 1904 and 1905. However, after a couple or performances it was set aside by the composer who was largely dissatisfied with the work. Hindmarsh has noted that the original quintet was a ‘muscular, four-movement work, with a huge piano part, brim full of musical ideas’ yet the work was deemed to be ‘lacking the refinement and elegance of his mature chamber works.’
In 1912 the composer revised the Quintet. The first movement was completely rewritten: the second and third movement were shortened and combined into a single ‘span.’ The finale was also cut down in size. But perhaps most importantly, Bridge made the work cyclic by introducing themes from the first movement into the last. Andrew Burn, in the liner notes, states that the composer also ‘lightened the piano textures throughout.’ The revision was more concentrated and less inclined to ramble. Unfortunately the original work has not been recorded so it is impossible to compare the two rescensions. However it has been noted that most of the angularities from 1905 have been smoothed out and there is a greater reliance on ‘Fauré-inspired arpeggiated figuration.’
The revised Quintet is certainly one that listeners can do business with. It is a work that largely straddles two sides of Frank Bridge’s musical aesthetic. On the one hand it has a romanticism that owes much to Brahms and also a significant nod to Charles Villiers Stanford. On the other hand, this work has considerable intimations of the composer’s later, more austere style that was to dominate his music after the Great War. The Piano Quintet in D minor is a bright, satisfying work that is always enjoyable and often moving. The more I hear this piece (in whatever version) the more it becomes a favourite. However, the present recording is excellent with a committed and confident performance by Ashley Wass and the Tippett Quartet.
The other recordings of this work include Piers Lane and the Goldner String Quartet on Hyperion, Daniel Tong and the London Bridge Ensemble on Dutton and Michael Dussek and the Bridge String Quartet on SOMM.
It is always invidious to recommend one recording of a work over another – especially when there are so few editions available. The bottom line is that all enthusiasts of Bax and Bridge will insist on having this Naxos release in their libraries. I guess that most will not sit and compare them note to note looking for subtleties of light and shade and interpretation. They are works that are to be appreciated and enjoyed: if they move and inspire, then that is a major benefit. On any reckoning the present recording succeeds in all these achievements.
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) Piano Quintet in G minor (1914-15)
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1940) Piano Quintet in D minor, H49a (1904-5: rev.1912)
Ashley Wass (piano); The Tippett Quartet
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published