Frank Bridge – the unsung British modernist

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) – a focus of the BBC Proms (Photo: Tully Potter CollectFrank Bridge (1879-1941) – a focus of the BBC Proms (Photo: Tully Potter Collection)

Frank Bridge died 70 years ago as his country was coming close to defeat by Nazi Germany. It seems ironic that such a committed pacifist should die before the outcome of this second great conflict became known. Like many of the founding fathers of 20th-century music, including Bartók, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Bridge began writing within the post-Romantic idiom. All these composers had an early style, which the public usually prefers, and then they moved towards a more exploratory idiom. In Bridge’s case the dividing line was the First World War where what he heard about the horrifying atrocities of the battlefields turned him into a kind of expressionist composer. This made some of his later works a tough nut to crack for the devotees of English pastoralism, although Bridge had also done that beautifully, and if he had not met the American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1922, who commissioned works and put on performances in America, his neglect would have been almost total. Her support enabled him to spend less time as a professional viola player and teacher and compensated for his being passed over as a conductor. Anthony Payne, introducing six of Bridge’s works at the Proms this season, regards him as 'one of this country’s most significant composers'. (As Bridge is now well served on CD I shall choose all-Bridge releases.) 

Bridge has had little credit for his outstanding piano music. It ranges from perfectly turned salon pieces of the kind required by publishers with pretty titles like Rosemary, Water Nymphs and The Hedgerow to the concentrated and intense Sonata, completed after three years of work in 1924. It’s dedicated to the memory of Ernest Bristow Farrar (1885-1918), a composer and organist who was a contemporary of Bridge at the Royal College and who was killed in action. With its angry outbursts, the Sonata is seen as heralding the more dissonant Bridge and is a landmark in British piano music. No less a pianist than Myra Hess gave what Bridge regarded as a fine premiere, but it was greeted with hostile reviews. Fifty years later it was Eric Parkin who taught us the stature of this Sonata in his outstanding 1978 LP on Unicorn (RHS359). Now, from a new generation, Ashley Wass is totally convincing in the Sonata in his second volume of Bridge piano music. Unfortunately his first volume is marred by some inexplicably slow tempi.

There are four string quartets – two in Bridge’s early style and two in the later idiom. Bridge told Coolidge that the Third Quartet 'contains the best of me I do not doubt'. He was right: it was premiered in Vienna in 1927 and further performances in Europe and America followed. It is a spectacular achievement for a British composer at that period, magnificently crafted for the medium with cogent ideas that unify the entire work across its three movements. The Maggini Quartet are now the ideal interpreters of these important pieces in the string quartet repertoire with everything perfectly gauged. 

Bridge’s orchestral works fall on both sides of the First World War divide with early pieces like the Symphonic Poem Isabella (1907) and the sumptuous suite for large orchestra, The Sea (1911). But it’s the later works that form the basis of the fourth volume of the admirable Chandos series conducted by Richard Hickox with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. This also includes Bridge’s only work for chorus and orchestra, A Prayer, an elegiac setting of Thomas à Kempis written during the war, in a style that harks back to Stanford and Parry with a touch of Holst. Much more arresting is the Concerto Elegiaco called Oration for cello and orchestra. Completed in 1930, it had to wait six years for a first performance. Bridge told Florence Hooton, who played it with the BBC Orchestra under the composer, that the concerto was a protest against war so it’s another example of the relatively astringent harmonic idiom of his later music harnessed to a message. The cello soloist is the narrator, even the preacher, in this half-hour single movement. Although the concentration of the separate movements of the quartets is missing, the German cellist Alban Gerhardt is eloquent throughout and Hickox cannot be faulted. The CD also contains the overture-length Rebus (1940), Bridge’s last completed orchestral work which he did not live to hear performed. The title is assumed to mean some kind of puzzle but it might also refer to the Latin "de rebus quae geruntur" (concerning things that are taking place) and once again Bridge was thinking of war. In Rebus Bridge retreats somewhat from his more dissonant style suggesting that, had he lived, like Bartók he might have had a final period of more accessible works. The single movement he left from an incomplete Symphony for Strings, completed by Anthony Pople, is not too encouraging but Bridge thought the symphony was going to be his most considerable work.

That movement, along with Rebus, also appears on the Lyrita reissue with the London Philharmonic under Nicholas Braithwaite but this release is more significant as a reminder of the sheer exuberance and orchestral panache of the Dance Rhapsody (1908) and Dance Poem (1913). Here Bridge was not dogged by his pacifist convictions and could celebrate his own take on the post-Romantic idiom he had inherited. This is true later of the exhilarating Enter Spring (1927) for the Norwich Festival, his only orchestral commission, which is a response to the Sussex countryside rather than the mud of the trenches. 

In view of the role of the cello in Oration it’s interesting to find that there’s almost enough cello and piano music to fill a whole CD. Penelope Lynex and Alexander Wells include the salon pieces as well as the Sonata, which was written during the war at a transitional moment where the second movement starts to look forward to the disillusion of the later style. This is a most attractive and rewarding collection covering all aspects of the earlier Bridge.

 

The Essential Recordings

Bridge Piano Music Vol 2 Ashley Wass (pf) Naxos 8 557921 Buy from Amazon

Bridge String Quartets Nos 1 and 3 Maggini Quartet Naxos 8 557133 Buy from Amazon

Bridge String Quartets Nos 2 and 4. Phantasy Piano Quartet Maggini Quartet; Martin Roscoe (pf) Naxos 8 557283 Buy from Amazon

Bridge Orchestral Works Vol 4 Alban Gerhardt (vc) BBC National Chorus of Wales; BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Richard Hickox Chandos CHAN10188 Buy from Amazon

Bridge Dance Rhapsody. Dance Poems. Two Poems. Overture: Rebus. Allegro Moderato London Philharmonic Orchestra / Nicholas Braithwaite Lyrita SRCD243 Buy from Amazon

Bridge Complete music for cello and piano Penelope Lynex (vc) Alexander Wells (pf) Somm SOMM229 Buy from Amazon

 

Frank Bridge at the 2011 BBC Proms

Bridge Enter Spring BBC National Orchestra of Wales / François-Xavier Roth – Tuesday August 9 at 7pm More details

Bridge Overture: Rebus BBC Philharmonic / Vassily Sinaisky – Thursday August 11 at 7.30pm More details

Bridge Three Idylls – No 2. Piano Quintet Aronowitz Ensemble; Tom Poster (pf) – Monday August 15 at 1pm More details

Bridge Isabella BBC Symphony Orchestra / David Robertson – Wednesday September 7 at 7pm More details

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