Frank Bridge Piano Music Volume 1/Ashley Wass

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A Fairy Tale – Suite
The Hour Glass
Miniature Pastorals [Set 1]
Three Lyrics
Three Pieces
In Autumn
Three Poems

Ashley Wass (piano)

Recorded between 19-21 April 2005 in Potton Hall, Suffolk

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: June 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.557842
Duration: 70 minutes

The revival of serious interest in Frank Bridge (1879-1941) over the last thirty years or so has been heartening after such a long period of unwarranted neglect. Naxos has recently been playing its part, with acclaimed orchestral and chamber music issues, and now Ashley Wass has begun a survey of the piano works.

The music on this first volume dates from 1912-24, spanning the crucial period of transition from Bridge’s late-romantic manner to the more intensely personal music of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, reflecting both the trauma of the First World War and his interest in musical developments on continental Europe which many of his English contemporaries appeared almost wilfully to ignore.

A Fairy Tale, from 1917, is pure escapism, marked by Bridge’s impeccable craftsmanship. It’s not hard to pick out French influences (‘The Princess’ is reminiscent of Debussy in fête-galante mode), but the subtle chromaticism is a pointer to the direction in which his music had already begun to move. Wass judges the expressive tone to a nicety, from the story-book grotesquerie of ‘The Ogre’ to the delicate enchantment of ‘The Spell’

The three pieces that make up The Hour Glass date from only two to three years later, but already we are in a sparer, less comfortable world. ‘Dusk’ has a haunting melancholy, with no hint of self-indulgence, which clearly has wider implications than just the time of day. The sombre and dramatic ‘The Midnight Tide’ is a pretty unequivocal indication of the way Bridge’s musical thought was evolving. Even the middle piece, ‘The Dew Fairy’, is not the simple throwback to the world of A Fairy Tale you might expect from the title.

With the first set of Miniature Pastorals we skip back in time to 1917, and in style even further, to the world of Bridge’s pre-war salon music. These unpretentious little children’s pieces make up in charm for what they lack in depth, and again Wass finds just the right touch.

The disc’s zigzagging chronological progress takes us with the Three Lyrics to the early 1920s. ‘Heart’s Ease’, with its ethereal bell sounds, has something of the earlier manner, but the mercurial ‘Dainty Rogue’ and the unnerving and unpredictable ‘The Hedgerow’ (written only a few months after the great forward stride of Bridge’s Piano Sonata) are products of the composer’s new expressive world.

The Three Pieces of 1912 – ‘Columbine’, ‘Minuet’ and ‘Romance’ – comprise the earliest music on the disc. Wass plays them for what they are worth; as with the Miniature Pastorals he neither patronises them nor inflates them beyond their natural dimensions.

The contrast with the two pieces that make up In Autumn – composed, like ‘The Hedgerow’, in the wake of the Sonata of 1924 – is a remarkable indication of the extraordinary expressive distance Bridge’s music travelled in the intervening twelve years. Wass brings out the affinities with Berg’s Opus 1 Sonata in the powerfully haunting ‘Retrospect’, and invests ‘Through the Eaves’ with limpid fluidity.

It is back to the earlier Bridge to end the disc, the Three Poems of 1914-15. In fact, it’s not that much of a stylistic jump back to the chromatically-inflected introspection of ‘Solitude’ and ‘Sunset’; the central ‘Ecstasy’, while just as rich in its language, stands out for its vigour and forward drive.

That Ashley Wass has the full measure of this music’s subtlety and expressive variety should be clear by now. Textures are unerringly balanced and he leads the ear through Bridge’s increasingly abstruse harmonic world with unassuming authority; Naxos gives him a clear, natural piano sound. Bring on Volume 2!

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