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Hyperion Records

CDA67426 - Bridge: Early Chamber Music
The Line of the Plough by Sir John Arnesby Brown (1866-1955)
© Tate Gallery, London

Recording details: August 2003
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: February 2004
Total duration: 65 minutes 50 seconds

'The Raphael Ensemble plays with passion and sensitivity and is beautifully recorded' (Fanfare, USA)

'L'enthousiasme des Raphael, justement signataires d'une splendide gravure des deux quintettes de Brahms, ne se dément pas: les contrastes dûment accentués et la beauté de leur sonorité vont au-delà des intentions de l'auteur: ils transforment l'essai talentueux d'un novice en un cru que l'on attribuerait aux meilleures années' (Diapason, France)

Early Chamber Music
Allegro moderato  [10'53]
Allegro molto  [7'53]

In 1901 the twenty-two-year-old Frank Bridge was engaged on a course of study at the Royal College of Music under the notoriously crusty Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, an experience the younger composer was to describe as being like ‘imbibing water through a straw instead of glaxo and bovril’. Nonetheless, the youthful String Quintet in E minor dating from this time betrays not the fug of the classroom, but rather the verve of Brahms, Dvořák and Elgar, and a distinctly Russian sense of energetic rhythmic bite alongside Bridge’s trademark effortless shifts from key to key.

The String Sextet in E flat major, first performed in 1913 though originally sketched in 1906, is the most richly textured and expansive of all Bridge’s early chamber works. In three movements, the scale and character of this true masterpiece are established right from the first appearance of its soaring opening melody.

A proficient violist in his own right, Bridge took to the stage in 1912 with Lionel Tertis to perform two viola duets of his own making. Never published, and their manuscripts lost, it eventually proved possible to revive one of them, the Lament, from an all-but complete sketch preserved in the Royal College of Music library. The result is some of the composer’s most personal music, Bridge skilfully spinning out from his two violas some of the most haunting and lyrical dialogues ever written.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In 1896 Frank Bridge (1879–1941) was sent up to London from the family home in Brighton to enrol as a violin student at the Royal College of Music. He was just seventeen, but had already experienced something of the life of a jobbing professional musician in Brighton’s schools and theatres. His father William Bridge, who began his working life as a lithographer, had turned in middle age to violin teaching and conducting. He travelled to boarding schools in Brighton, Eastbourne and Seaford and was also the Music Director at two local theatres, the Old Oxford and subsequently the Empire. Young Frank – the ninth of his twelve children – was six when his father began to teach him the violin. Bridge senior was a stern disciplinarian. His insistence on regular and long practice gave Frank a strong sense of standard, but at the expense of a marked rounding of the shoulders. Frank inherited many of his father’s traits, good and bad. At the age of twelve he was sent to the local Brighton School of Music for weekly lessons. It was around this time that he began to compose: a steady stream of songs, instrumental and orchestral pieces flowed from his youthful pen. Frank also played in his father’s theatre orchestra. He arranged items of music and even filled in on various instruments when the need arose.

Bridge’s progress during the first three of his six years at the RCM was steady rather than spectacular and by 1899 he had risen from the back to the front desk of the second violins of the college orchestra. His rapid rise really began in 1900, when he won a Foundation Scholarship, enabling him to stay on for a further three years of study with the most influential composition teacher in Britain of the age, Charles Villiers Stanford. Although Bridge later dismissed what he had learned ‘in the Nursery’ as like ‘imbibing water through a straw instead of glaxo and bovril’, he became one of the shining lights of the institution – an accomplished chamber player taking up the viola, forming his own string quartet and playing for the Prime Minister; a fine orchestral musician and promising conductor; a prize-winning composer, whose String Quartet in B flat (H3) won the Arthur Sullivan Prize in March 1901. It is well documented that Stanford was a notoriously ‘crusty’ teacher, setting his young charges a traditional diet of exercises and looking with a withering eye on any ‘modern’ tendencies. However critical Bridge may have been of these methods in later years, the solid technical grounding he received – the exposure to Classical models and to the way the ancient modes worked – was to provide the basis for his own compositional techniques.

Stanford actively encouraged his students to hear the fruits of their labours. All four of Bridge’s student chamber works received student or professional performances, although he consigned them to his bottom drawer soon after. They remained unperformed for over one hundred years, but the three that survive – the B flat String Quartet (H3), a String Quintet in E minor (H7) and a Piano Quartet in C minor (H15) – are now being revived. Far from being simply student exercises, they reveal a young composer of growing confidence, assurance and resourcefulness. With the benefit of a century of hindsight, it is possible to regard the String Quintet in E minor as something of a milestone for Bridge. Composed between May and July 1901, it is in his favourite string key, it is full of contrast and colour, structurally well balanced and exhibits many individual touches. There is a Brahmsian influence in the way Bridge manipulates his themes (especially the minor third) and perhaps more of Dvorák in the easy flow of the melodic invention; there’s a hint of Elgar in the way the Andante begins; there’s something distinctly Russian in the energy and rhythmic bite of the scherzo; but the way Bridge uses pivotal notes and pedal points to move effortlessly from key to key is quite personal.

Each movement begins with short theme, which establishes its character, but which also maintain a ‘family’ likeness, at least in their interval content. The opening sounds like a call to attention – this is the main theme for the movement. No sooner stated, it is enveloped in an impassioned web of triplets and counter-subjects. There is a moment of respite when the violas present the second subject, which is a little tune rather than the more sustained lyrical passages Bridge would invent for his second subjects in the future. The development emerges tentatively out of the transparent coda that rounds off the repeated exposition. Similarly the recapitulation is ushered in quietly, without a dramatic gesture. Bridge, even at twenty-two, was not content with a literal reprise. He continues to alter the musical perspective, to change the emphasis and let the music evolve naturally.

The second movement begins simply, almost like a hymn. As it unfolds the harmonies become more intense and an elegiac tone emerges. The atmosphere darkens further in the central episode, which builds from a succession of falling phrases to climax on a long pedal note. Then, just as in the first movement, the opening music is further transformed on its reprise – the melody on the lower instruments, a counter-subject on the violins and sustained by much more elaborate harmonies. In later years Bridge might have described the scherzo as one of his ‘spasms’. The music rushes along in moto perpetuo fashion, including a succession of syncopations and a helter-skelter moment on the first violin. The trio contains perhaps the most characteristic passage in the piece. This is Bridge the miniaturist, the creator of music which his famous pupil Benjamin Britten would describe as ‘graceful, elegant and grateful to play’. The added-note chords and the gentle lilt of the music prefigures the style of the Three Idylls for string quartet (1906). The minor third that provided the motivic ‘engine room’ for the first movement propels the finale from the very start. The viola theme rushes upwards, in the opposite direction to its country cousin that started the Quintet so boldly. Bridge’s elegant drawing-room style returns in the second theme. Just before the final headlong dash to the end, Bridge cleverly contrives to bring back a veiled reference to the very opening of the Quintet.

When Bridge finally left the Royal College of Music, the Principal, Sir Hubert Parry wrote ‘I am sorry that Mr. Bridge’s time as a scholar at the College has come to an end. His career here has been most distinguished and I heartily wish him distinguished success in the wider career before him’. Bridge’s early years as a professional musician involved playing violin in London’s orchestras, giving chamber concerts on viola with three string quartets, including his own English String Quartet and coaching chamber groups back at the College and at Oxford University. Composing music occupied his spare moments, adding up only to about three months a year, so it is not surprising perhaps that he made a few false starts, at least on a larger canvas. He left a Violin Sonata tantalizingly incomplete half-way through its second movement. A muscular Piano Quintet in D minor received a couple of performances before being put aside for further revision, and then in 1906 he began work on an ambitious String Sextet in E flat. This too was problematic and Bridge did not return to either work until 1912. By then he had become vastly more experienced, with a couple of Queen’s Hall Promenade concert performances under his belt – Isabella (1907) and The Sea (1912). His chamber music Phantasies (1906, 1907, 1910) had also been successful in Cobbett Competitions. Writing these concise one-movement works, which according to Cobbett’s rubric should contain all the elements of a full-scale chamber work condensed into a single span, proved enormously influential in the way Bridge was to construct all his subsequent chamber and orchestral works, from these early romantic pieces to the much more radical ones which were to come in the 1920s and ’30s.

By 1912 Bridge was looking to expand his horizons, to explore a richer harmonic palette in particular. Rewriting the Piano Quintet, finishing off the Sextet and revising a number of his youthful instrumental pieces cleared the way for these wider horizons to be opened up. The String Sextet in E flat major received its first performance on 19 June 1913 in what is now Wigmore Hall. The English String Quartet, with Bridge on first viola, was joined by two colleagues from his RCM days, Ernest Tomlinson (viola) and Felix Salmond (cello). The Sextet is the most richly textured of all his early romantic chamber works. The soaring opening melody establishes the scale and character of the first movement. A rising bass motif soon emerges and this is also to play an important part in the musical argument. The tender second subject begins rather like an intermezzo – simple phrases given sequential treatment with a radiant climax. The long development section begins, typically for Bridge, in reflective mood. These ruminations soon give way to some vigorous exchanges, which are based on the first subject’s ideas and given added purpose by the inclusion of a vigorous fugato. This ushers in a reprise of the second subject in a remote tonality rather than of the first subject. Bridge completes his Cobbett-inspired sonata ‘arch’ with an imaginative re-harmonization of the main theme as an extended coda.

The second movement, in C sharp minor, typically combines slow movement and scherzo. It is the emotional heart of the work. In the Andante, repeated rhythms, grief-laden falling phrases – based incidentally on an inversion of the rising bass motif from the first movement – plus beautifully shaped counter-melodies combine to effect a lament as poignant as any in Bridge’s early music. The restless energy of the central scherzo is tempered by its minor mode (A minor). Bridge’s modal invention, underpinned by sustained pedal points, has a rare folk-like quality about it – rare for Bridge anyway.

The finale is the most compact of the three movements, and also the most densely thematic. It begins with one of the most unusual chromatic passages in all early Bridge. However, this is soon swept away by the main Allegro animato. The opening theme takes its shape from the falling fourths of the scherzo theme. In the short development, principal themes from the first and second movements are combined with the finale’s own material. In the reprise, second subjects from the first movement and the finale are combined. The ‘family’ likeness between the material of each movement ensures that these ‘cyclic’ procedures make their effect without sounding in the least contrived.

On 18 March 1912 Bridge shared the platform of the Aeolian Hall in London with another young viola player, who was destined for a major international career as a viola soloist, Lionel Tertis. Bridge composed a couple of viola duets for the occasion – a Lament and a Caprice. These were never published and the original manuscripts have not survived. However, sketches of both works are preserved in the Royal College of Music’s Frank Bridge Collection. The Caprice is fragmentary, but the Lament is all but complete in an ink sketch. It lacks some dynamic markings and the parts needed some minor re-distribution to make them practical, but the performing edition which the present writer made some years ago is 99% Bridge. Some of his most personal music is to be found in his nocturnes and laments – the slow movement of the Suite for strings, the Lament for strings or the orchestral impression There is a willow grows aslant a brook, for example. Knowing how the viola works from the inside, Bridge makes his two players sound like four. He spins one of longest and most haunting lyrical dialogues in the outer sections. The central episode is an elegant, wistful minuet, which flows seamlessly into an elaborated return of the opening chromatic dialogue. After a more dynamic climax, with energy seemingly spent, the dialogue gradually fades away into oblivion.

Paul Hindmarsh © 2004

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