This generously-filled collection of chamber works provides a summary of the stages in the musical life of Frank Bridge—the Romantic, the folksong arranger and the austere—which happens to be the order in which they are presented.
The Phantasy Quartet is a Cobbett work, but a commission rather than a Prize contender. Bridge had excelled in his first two entries in the Cobbett competition, being runner-up in 1905, and winner in 1907 (review). With this background, it wasn’t surprising that he was one of a number of composers asked to contribute a Phantasy a few years later. Benjamin Britten, Bridge’s student and staunch supporter, described the work as 'sonorous yet lucid, with clear, clean lines, grateful to listen to and to play … Brahms happily tempered with Fauré'. I might have expressed this with the composers swapped, for it is the lightness of touch that I associate with the Frenchman, which I hear most. Certainly, there are moments of Brahmsian drama, and interestingly the other recording I have—the Ames Piano Quartet (Albany)—is more towards the German side. Which do I prefer? Listening to both of them in succession, I would plump for the Nash. Either way, it is a glorious work.
The Cello Sonata is not a work I had heard before. Apparently its composition caused Bridge much trouble, though this may have been a by-product of the Great War which distressed him so greatly. The first movement is mostly restrained and soulful, carrying on the minor key mood from the Phantasy. This surprised me, because the tempo marking is allegro ben moderato. However, doing a quick survey of the recordings on the Naxos Music Library, confirmed that the moderato aspect is clearly more important than the allegro. The second and final movement is an odd and awkward melding of an adagio and a scherzo. They were originally intended to be separate, with another movement to finish, but Bridge, perhaps frustrated by the work sitting unfinished for four years, decided to combine them. The scherzo element, which is by far the smaller section, does seem to have aspects that foretell the direction in which Bridge’s music would move after the war.
The four folksong arrangements are unsurprisingly very popular. They are given unsentimental and quite forthright performances, much more strongly presented than by the Maggini Quartet on Naxos.
I admit to the violin and piano not being my favourite chamber combination, preferring the violin either joined or replaced by the cello. Bridge’s violin sonata comes from his austere between-the-wars period, so the auguries weren’t favourable, and my first impression was quite negative. Coming back to it a week later to write this, I found moments, particularly in the slow first section—it is set in one movement—that did engage me. However, I couldn’t imagine sitting happily through this live, such is the seemingly random episodic nature of the work. It is no surprise at all to me that the number of recordings of this work can be counted on the fingers on one hand, whereas for the Cello Sonata, you would have to use your toes as well.
The members of the Nash Ensemble, in various combinations here, excel, with Ian Brown’s contribution at the piano worthy of particular note. With Hyperion’s usual production standards, this is as good a way as any to sample the varying moods of this composer.