Friday, 23 September 2011

Frank Bridge: Piano music on SOMM Volume 3

It is absolutely necessary to explore this excellent, CD in a systematic manner. The last thing the listener should do is through-listen without a break. I would suggest a largely chronological walk through these pieces.
The Berceuse, which is the earliest piece on this CD was originally composed for violin/cello and piano in 1902. It was ‘dished up’ in a number of arrangements, including one for violin and orchestra, and also large and small orchestras. However, in 1929 a version was published for piano solo. This is a gorgeous little work with a ‘gentle, lulling tune’ that fully justifies its title. Like much of Bridge’s so-called ‘salon’ music, this goes beyond the genre with its subtlety and elegance.

Amongst the early pieces are three short works that may or may not be grouped together: - the Moderato, the Pensée Fugitive and the Scherzettino. They are presented as having separate catalogue numbers in Paul Hindmarsh’s catalogue. The ‘Moderato’ was composed in September 1903 which was some five months after Bridge had left the Royal College of Music. It is a rare little work that has hints of Vaughan Williams and is composed in a contrapuntal style, rather than with complex piano figurations.
The Pensée Fugitive from the summer of 1902 is a lovely little piece that is varied and interesting, certainly summing up the idea of a ‘fleeing thought.’
The Scherzettino was composed sometime between 1901 and 1902. It is a student work, but is none the worse for that. These three works are not particularly remarkable, however they were probably written to demonstrate various pianistic styles and techniques: they may not have been meant to survive into posterity.

The Three Poems (1915) are remarkable pieces. The liner notes rightly suggest that the composer is beginning to develop his musical language, without upsetting the sensibilities of his ‘Edwardian admirers.’ It would appear that originally these pieces were to be issued as ‘Four Characteristic Pieces which also included the Arabesque (1916). The three poems are ‘Sunset’, ‘Solitude’ and ‘Ecstasy’. I find these pieces quite challenging: they certainly contain a greater concentration of emotion and depth of interest than some of the earlier piano pieces. For one thing there is an increasing chromatic feel to this music, however this is not an abandonment of tonality but a certain blurring around the edges. This is especially evident in the ambiguous ‘Solitude’. ‘Ecstasy’ is massive, involved, colourful and full of passion.
The Arabesque sounds much more antagonistic than the title would suggest; certainly this is no will o’the wisp’ piece of whimsy.

The Three Improvisations (for the left-hand) were composed for the pianist Douglas Fox who had tragically lost his right arm during the Great War. The three pieces are:- ‘At Dawn’, ‘A Vigil’ and ‘A Revel’. The first two numbers are filled with emptiness and foreboding. The last is a little more open-hearted, but certainly does not fully justify the title. However, there is a rare beauty about these improvisations that defies analysis. Interestingly, the composer wrote to Fox, ‘I doubt whether you will be attracted when you try the pieces through at first, but just work at them a little and then I fondly hope they will stand up on their own legs and smile at you.’ There seems little to ‘smile’ about however, in these Improvisations.

Mark Bebbington recorded the Miniature Pastorals Set 1 in the second volume of his Bridge cycle. However, he has not chosen (so far) to include the second set dating from 1921. The present Miniature Pastorals Set 3 was not published in the composer’s lifetime. There were sketches and fair copies for three pieces dating from 1921 plus sketches only for a fourth piece. The first three were finally published in 1978 in an edition edited by Paul Hindmarsh: these include an ‘andante molto tranquillo’ an ‘allegro con moto’ and an ‘allegretto vivace’. The fourth piece, a ‘marziale e ben marcato’ was not included in the sheet music as it was felt the composer had rejected it: according to Hindmarsh, the ‘musical quality falls far below that of the other pieces.’ Calum MacDonald has defined these pieces well: he suggests that these miniatures ‘represent an elegant simplification of his mature idiom.’ They are truly delightful numbers that do not suffer from being in the gift of amateur pianists.

One of the few pieces of Frank Bridge that I can play tolerably well is ‘Heart’s Ease’ from the Three Lyrics. So it holds a special place in my ‘heart.’ Alas the other two pieces are not quite so ‘easy’. ‘Dainty Rogue’ could be a picture of Robin Goodfellow or Puck: it is a frisky little scherzo that is demanding of the player with its light figurations and chromatic passages. As Lewis Foreman says, Bridge ‘prefers his scherzos to be thistledown rather than hobnail boots.’ The final ‘Lyric’ is ‘The Hedgerow’. I am not sure that this piece is evocative of the English (or any other) landscape. Yet this work is a clever little confection – which opens with the promise of a folk-tune melody –that soon develops into something a lot more ‘advanced’. Yet the ‘tune’ is revisited – in spite of the rhythmic and metrical diversity of the contrasting material.
The first two ‘Lyrics’ were composed in 1921/22 and the final was not written until 1924. As Calum MacDonald has noted they therefore ‘frame’ the great Piano Sonata.
It has been suggested that in some ways this little suite could be seen to epitomise the composer’s career (so far). Perhaps ‘Heart’s Ease’ nods to the salon music of the Edwardian years, ‘Dainty Rogue’ may represent the ‘advanced’ chromaticism of the post-Great War period and the final ‘The Hedgerow’ could be pushing towards atonality.

Winter Pastoral from 1925 is written in Bridge’s ‘later’ chromatic style. In this case it is not a virtuosic piece; it can be played by any good pianist. However, its ‘chilly’ language and subtle balance of dissonance and traditional harmonies are difficult to ‘pull off’ well. It describes a cold, frosty morning to perfection. However, it is a million miles away from any kind of ‘folksy’ bucolic pastoral scene.

I love the little short ‘Canzonetta’ (1926) which was originally called ‘Happy South.’ It is a good balance between the dreamy pastoral mood of the outer sections and the short, and more frenetic ‘trio’. However this irruption is short lived: the gorgeous mood soon returns and the piece ends in quiet contemplation. It would make a good pendant to the Vignettes de Marseille.
Another innovative work from 1926/27 is Hidden Fires. Lewis Foreman notes that this piece was specifically composed for the recital room and demands total technical competence from the pianist. Mark Bebbington’s website suggests that this work is a ‘simmering toccata [that] recalls Scriabin’s Vers la flamme’. It is certainly the composer moving beyond his usual comfort zone, perhaps towards Bartok and bitonality? Yet he never entirely evacuates the work of romanticism.

The year 1926 also saw the somewhat mysterious A Dedication. For one thing, the work would appear to carry no actual dedication on either the printed score or the holograph. The musical basis of this piece would appear to be two simple themes; however they are developed in a ‘dislocated’ manner that lends towards harmonic complexity and ‘tonal ambiguity.’ This is a deeply felt piece that would appear to inhabit the same mood as that of the Third String Quartet and the later Oration for cello and orchestra.

The last original solo piano piece that Frank Bridge wrote is usually regarded as his ‘harmonically most advanced piano work.’ In fact, Gargoyles, which was composed in July 1928 was rejected by his publisher and lay unheard until 1975, when the pianist Isobel Woods performed it at a musical conference. This is an enigmatic, sarcastic, daring and technically demanding work that well reflects the title. This work is in total contrast to the early Berceuse composed a quarter of a century earlier. Yet in spite of the ‘bitonal procedures,’ its atonal mood and the largely impressionistic feel, there is certain intangible something to Gargoyles that makes this piece equally a part of Bridge’s canon of piano music as the salon pieces of the Edwardian years.

It is not possible to fault any part of this CD production by Siva Oke and SOMM. The playing by Mark Bebbington is superb and totally sympathetic to the various ‘periods’ of Frank Bridge’s compositional style, the sound is perfect, the liner notes by Lewis Foreman are totally helpful and informative.

I am not sure if this is the final chapter of the Bebbington Bridge Cycle – certainly there are a few more numbers that could be recorded, but many of these are arrangements or ephemeral works that may or may not be regarded as a part of the canon. Whatever the future, this present CD presents a number of remarkable and important works. It is a worthy part of what is a major, important project that adds a vital chapter to British recorded music.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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