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Hyperion Records

CDA67726 - Bridge: Piano Quintet, String Quartet & Idylls
On the Pier, Brighton by Charles Edward Conder (1868-1909)
Private Collection / The Fine Art Society, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67726

Recording details: July 2008
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: May 2009
Total duration: 64 minutes 39 seconds

BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE DISC OF THE MONTH

'[Fourth Quartet] is arguably Bridge's most rivetingly cogent and harmonically bracing statement, evincing a deftness, compassion, and unerring intellectual scope that beg comparison with the greatest 20th-century examples in the medium … these unfailingly sympathetic, flexible and exhilaratingly assured performances (that of the Quartet, on balance, the finest to date) have been most truthfully captured by the microphones; Bridge's cataloguer Paul Hindmarsh provides the scholarly annotation … this is clearly a release to investigate, as well as a distinguished addition to the steadily growing Bridge discography' (Gramophone)

'This is an absolutely splendid disc, with powerful, committed performances that illuminate Bridge's mastery of chamber music' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The tremendous sweep of Frank Bridge's chamber music is beautifully captured in this revelatory CD … the Goldner Quartet really understand this music and with masterly pianist Piers Lane throw welcome light on a neglected page of British music' (The Observer)

'An important and fascinating disc, which anyone interested in 20th-century music should hear' (The Guardian)

'Bridge's musical personality shines through in the sweeping phrases, tinged with a certain brooding quality … the performance by Piers Lane and the Goldner Quartet is very fine, with a particularly strong sense of musical line … this newcomer on Hyperion is especially welcome' (International Record Review)

Piano Quintet, String Quartet & Idylls
Allegro con moto  [3'40]
Allegro energico  [11'29]
Quasi minuetto  [4'27]

Frank Bridge is one of those composers who has been generally dismissed for his ‘Englishness’ and is probably remembered best today as the teacher of Benjamin Britten. But this disc of chamber music will radically change this appraisal. It particularly reveals Bridge’s strong French influence, the dance-like quality of his writing darkened with a brooding inspiration, and the music’s dramatic and emotional heart. Three important and very different works are collected here: the elegant early Idylls, the ambitious Piano Quintet and the extraordinary String Quartet No 4, Bridge’s last chamber work, written during a period of near-fatal illness, yet displaying a progressive, forward-looking musical language that shows the great range of this undervalued composer.

We are delighted to welcome the Goldner Quartet back to Hyperion for their second disc. Their first—also featuring pianist Piers Lane—was universally acclaimed as a truly great chamber recording, and has been nominated for a BBC Music Magazine award.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
When Frank Bridge died in 1941 much of his music had fallen out of the repertoire, the early romantically inclined music as well as the more radical works of his later years. His reputation rested largely on his shorter instrumental pieces and songs, much of which was labelled (and perhaps dismissed) as salon music. Writing in 1947, Benjamin Britten challenged this view of his old teacher with a trenchantly worded and keenly observed apologia:

When Frank Bridge matured at the turn of the century, the school of chamber music was in the doldrums. The headmaster was Brahms, chief assistant masters Schumann and Mendelssohn; the dancing-master Dvorák and of course above all the Chairman of the Governors—Beethoven. Not much notice was taken of those dull, superannuated professors Haydn and Mozart—and though the occasional visits of the art master Schubert gave pleasure, his character was highly suspect. Not as suspect, however, as the masters of that dreadful neighbouring co-educationalist school, Debussy and Fauré. Bridge … was not only a listener and composer, but a player too. Little wonder that he wanted to write the Idylls and Noveletten, music grateful to play and easy to listen to.

There is much Gallic grace in Bridge’s early chamber music. His piano-writing, with its flowing, arpeggiated style owed much to the example of Fauré. Bridge also learned from the French tradition how to integrate his melodic inspirations through subtle thematic connections. One idea often grows out of another in a cyclic way; one paragraph of music often melds into the next through a graceful harmonic side-slip rather than a hard-worked modulation. However, there is also a dramatic and emotional heart to Bridge’s music. He was an impulsive and impatient character and this spilled over into his music in what he used to described as his ‘emotional spasms’. This is clearly apparent in parts of the Piano Quintet, but less so in the Idylls, three charming string miniatures composed in 1906.

Bridge dedicated the Three Idylls (H67) to E.E.S.—Ethel Elmore Sinclair was an Australian who sat with Bridge on the first desk of the second violins in the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra at the turn of the twentieth century. She returned from Australia in October 1907, six months after Bridge, playing second violin, had given the premiere of the suite with the Grimson Quartet. Frank and Ethel were married on 2 September 1908.

Bridge’s mastery of the string medium is evident right from the outset. The first movement opens in subdued, almost melancholy vein, with the main theme on Bridge’s favourite instrument, the viola. The Adagio molto espressivo in C sharp minor blossoms into a serene and lyrical E major, one of Bridge’s characteristic ‘stringy’ keys. After a stirring climax, the music subsides once more into a more melancholic mood. The second Idyll has become Frank Bridge’s most often played composition. In 1936 Benjamin Britten used it as the theme for his Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra, Op 10, which is in fact Britten’s affectionate character study of his teacher. Britten was attracted to this music because of its subtle harmonic ambiguities. The central section is more animated and direct in harmony. The finale, with its bustling energy and vitality reveals the influence of Debussy’s String Quartet—a work which Bridge’s had admired since his student days.

Early in 1905 Bridge composed an ambitious Piano Quintet in D minor (H49). This was a muscular, four-movement work, with a huge piano part, brim full of musical ideas, but rather unwieldy and certainly lacking the refinement and elegance of his mature chamber works. After two performances in 1907, Bridge consigned it to a bottom drawer. Then in 1912 he took it up again. The revisions amounted to complete re-write, in which he fashioned something characteristic out of immature beginnings. The unbridled energy of the original first movement is toned down to be replaced by a more brooding inspiration infused with that ‘Gallic’ impulse. Bridge condensed the original second and third movements into a single span, the principal melody of the B major Adagio ma non troppo framing the fleet-footed A minor scherzo (Allegro con brio). The finale also benefitted from a major prune and the final climax is clinched by a re-introduction of the first and second subjects from the first movement. Bridge’s substantially revised the piano part in line with his Phantasie Piano Trio (1907) and Phantasy Piano Quartet (1910). Most of the angularities from 1905 have been smoothed out and there is a greater reliance on Fauré-inspired arpeggiated figuration.

Much has been written in recent years about the dramatic change in style of Bridge’s music after the First World War. Benjamin Britten came to know at first-hand how devastating Bridge found the 1914–18 conflict, as he explained in the same 1947 article cited above:

The many talks I had with him, indeed everything about him, told me of the utter horror and revulsion he felt about the catastrophe. The seed of discontent [what Bridge described as his ‘emotional spasms’] grew and grew … The whole of Bridge’s musical horizon was now shattered—unlimited possibilities, harmonically and texturally, became possible.

Bridge described the music he composed in the last twenty years of his life as ‘the best of me’. Throughout these years, he was supported by the indefatigable American patron of new music Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. That the music made any headway at all was due in large measure to her advocacy and financial support. Mrs Coolidge was the pre-eminent patron of chamber music worldwide in the inter-war years, commissioning many of the leading composers of the day, including Schoenberg, Bartók and Britten, and promoting their work in concerts all over Europe and in the USA. From the summer of 1923, when Bridge and his wife were among the guest list of English composers and performers attending her annual Berkshire Festival, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, until his death early in 1941, Mrs Coolidge supported Bridge to the tune of $2,500 a year. This enabled him to give up teaching the violin and press ahead along the new stylistic paths he had longed to take since the end of the First World War. Bridge repaid this generosity by composing for her international festivals, beginning with the String Quartet No 3 (1926), including the magnificent Piano Trio No 2 (1929) and ending with the lithe and vibrant String Quartet No 4 (1937).

Work on the String Quartet No 4 (H188), Bridge’s last chamber work, began fitfully and slowly, as a letter to his patron (written on 21 July 1936) makes clear:

I wanted so much to send you something that the South Mountain Quartet might play for you, but the damned thing won’t go where I want it to. As fast as it progresses, I slash it to bits and begin again. A very tiresome and wearisome business it is to create one day and destroy the next. Even more annoying when alternate days become alternate weeks. But knots of all kinds are in the wind and it can’t be expected that they should not run in one’s own mind.

Those knots were not to unravel for sixteen months. The 1930s were Bridge’s leanest creative years. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge’s regular money orders had diminished in value in the wake of the US stock market collapse, so he was now relying more on his conducting. He had not written anything substantial since completing a Violin Sonata in 1932. The creative block that caused him all the trouble with the new quartet four years later paled into insignificance with a crisis in his health later in the year, as his wife Ethel wrote (in a letter to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, 25 October 1936):

A week ago yesterday he was his usual jolly, happy self. We’d parted with our maid who was going to be married and had tidied up the cottage preparatory to leaving for London for the rest of the winter, except for a weekend now and then. About a quarter to nine, he felt very sick and then was dreadfully sick … His condition worried me as I thought he’d strain his heart … Two days later he seemed to collapse and we’ve had a nightmare time all the week … We had one specialist down on Friday, who practically gave us no hope, but today’s man has and actually the difference tonight is most marked and he is conscious again at times … He’d caught a severe chill, which turned out to be bronchitis with complications and of course he’d strained himself so badly.

Bridge’s illness nearly killed him. He suffered with high blood pressure and a weak heart for the remaining five years of his life. After six months’ convalescence, including a two-week trip to Paris in April 1937, he was strong enough to take up his composing pen once again. Mrs Coolidge was the first to read the good news, in July:

Just please rejoice with me again. I am the proud father of a completed first movement … It is contrary to my usual habit of not counting my chickens until they are hatched, but as I can scarcely believe the fact myself I feel I must try to make you share my joy at becoming alive again … What a surprise it is to be able to concentrate at all.

Four months later the String Quartet No 4 was finished and within a month the premiere was confirmed—once again in Mrs Coolidge’s Berkshire Festival, to be given on 13 September 1939, by her resident Gordon String Quartet.

Intimations of mortality had clearly sharpened Bridge’s mind and the new quartet emerged as the most concise and rigorously composed of the five he completed. It is Haydnesque in scale and in three concise movements—sonata allegro, minuet and rondo. The musical language is the most progressive of all Bridge’s chamber works. The opening flourish from the viola presents the main thematic material and exposes eleven semitones. The first movement is the most substantial of the three, frenetic in its rhythmic and motivic energy. The music is not atonal, since it is rooted on D, but Bridge’s harmonic language is dominated by one of his favourite polychords—a minor chord in its root position with a major triad, whose root is one tone higher, superimposed upon it (e.g. a D minor chord, with a triad of E major sounding at the same time). Some respite is afforded by a beautifully proportioned lyrical second subject.

The Quasi minuetto is founded upon an obsessive ostinato bass. It has a haunted quality about it, with pizzicato chords accompanying the second idea, prefiguring what Bartók was to do in his String Quartet No 6 two years later. The finale is equally pithy—a slow introduction (Adagio ma non troppo) preceding a lighter, almost neo-classical rondo (Allegro con brio), in which Bridge allows himself to reveal stronger tonal foundations. Here quartal (fourth- and fifth-based) harmonies dominate the principal episode. In the coda, Bridge re-introduces material from the first movement to produce a joyous conclusion.

Paul Hindmarsh © 2009

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