Two Poems for Orchestra
Mid of the Night
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: November 2001
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 9950
Duration: 76 minutes
At last! This is the beginning of Chandos and Richard Hickox’s much anticipated survey of Frank Bridge’s orchestral music, six CDs I believe.
Bridge (1879-1941), born in Brighton, died in Eastbourne, studied with Stanford – this information is all you need to write Bridge off as a ’South Coast’ British composer, one trained at the Royal College. There was a time when Bridge was solely remembered for being Benjamin Britten’s teacher; fortunately the scope of his achievements as a composer is now more appreciated, not least in his embracing of musical developments from across the channel. Bridge, a pacifist, emerged from the First War with an altogether freer and tougher style, one with a kinship to Alban Berg. Pre-war pieces – The Sea (1911) for example – are recognisably ’English’, references being Bax and Delius, yet his own mastery is personal and distinctive.
The broader horizons of his later music are wonderfully displayed by Enter Spring, from 1927. Bridge’s impressionistic and luxurious brand of pastoralism might suggest Scriabin, certainly Berg, and there’s a wind of harmonic change blowing across the rugged landscape that Bridge so vividly conjures. Enter Spring is now quite well known through recordings by Groves, Carewe and Marriner; and not least the live Aldeburgh performance conducted by Britten (BBC Legends). Bridge’s evocativeness is remarkable, as is the glorious melody that emerges at the mid-point, which will appear in triumph at the close; Hickox leads a subtly blended, exultant performance.
It’s a long way back to Isabella, completed in 1907, Bridge emerging from Stanford’s tutelage; Liszt is the model, Tchaikovsky informs the scoring and emotions. Isabella is a lovely work both in melodic bloom and nocturnal colours. Lorenzo, Isabella’s murdered lover (by her two brothers), visits her as a ghost and she departs to the forest to dig his body up. Normal sort of day! Bridge’s music is atmospheric and suggestive, the closing minutes very Tchaikovskian; a Victorian sense of melodrama is omnipresent making Isabella a fascinating period piece.
This is the first recording of Mid of the Night – indeed this studio realisation is but its second performance – and is even earlier, 1903. Under Stanford, Bridge would have been much exposed to Brahms and Dvorak. As is made evident by Isabella, Bridge was drawn to the emotional and fantastical world of Tchaikovsky; Mid of the Night is even more specific as to this influence on him. The memorable melody that begins at 6’45” also brings a flavour of Elgar, more so in its ’lighter’ reprise at 7’34”, and then the chivalric countenance of Elgar’s Froissart emerges briefly. Wind and string solos and much to ravish the senses lead to a climax; the suggestion of dawn’s arrival energises activity, as if more night-time is required. At 26 minutes, Mid of the Night is perhaps overlong, yet it seems more successful than the concentrated Isabella, possibly because it grows from a literary idea while Isabella is explicit of Keat’s storyline.
Two Poems is a pivotal work in Bridge’s output. Written in 1915, the first’s harmonic shifts and dream-like melodic wafting create a very special retreat, one that reflects and consoles, Bridge’s reticence speaking volumes about reaction to life’s horrors; the falling phrase that emerges at 2’50” is quite devastating, heart-stopping, especially with Hickox and his players so inside Bridge’s soul. The companion piece – rumbustious, carefree and brilliantly orchestrated – testifies to Bridge’s wit.
I christened a rather expensive pair of headphones with this CD. Chandos’s recording is typically expansive in both space and dynamics; every detail is crystal-clear. Frank Bridge, Volume One, is urgently recommended. Volume Two is eagerly anticipated.