Bridge Quartet – Wigmore Hall (20 December)

String Quintett in E minor *
String Quartet in F
String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op. 51/2

Bridge String Quartet
[Madeleine Mitchell & Catherine Schofield(violins); Michael Schofield (viola) & Lucy Wilding (cello)]
with Ivo-Jan van der Werff (viola) *

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 December, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Having, naturally enough, put Frank Bridge at the centre of its repertoire over a 14-year career, it made sense for the Bridge Quartet to include a work by the composer for this return to the Wigmore Hall. A rediscovery too, as Bridge’s ’String Quintett’ (note the deliberately archaic spelling) seems not to have been revived since its premiere at the Royal College of Music on 4th December 1901!

As effectively a graduation exercise, one can understand why the 22-year-old composer chose not to press its claims – the more so given the stream of chamber works that Bridge composed over the next decade. That said, the Quintet impresses both through its technical finish and in the formal ingenuity worked into an outwardly conventional four-movement structure; in which respect, the descending unison phrase which opens the work and returns throughout as a ’motto’ theme can be said to foreshadow the ’phantasie’-form of many of Bridge’s subsequent works.

There are some striking incidental touches: the eloquent transition to the reprise in the opening Allegro; the rapt mood sustained at the close of the Andante; the already characteristic grotesquerie in the Presto’s trio section; and the succinct tying up of thematic loose ends in the finale’s affirmative coda.

The quintet was given a confident and well-prepared performance by the Bridge Quartet and Ivo-Jan van der Werff, his second viola part melding into the texture in a way akin to the late chamber music of Dvorák – in whose ’American’ String Quintet (not to be confused with the famous ’American’ String Quartet!) Bridge had himself taken second viola early in 1901 – rather than the densely contrapuntal manner more usual with Brahms.

One hopes that both it and the even earlier B flat Quartet will feature on a follow-up disc to the Bridge’s often excellent cycle of Bridge’s numbered quartets.

The gallic element evident in Bridge’s music from the outset has often been remarked upon – and, even though the quintet pre-dates Ravel’s quartet by almost two years, the pairing worked well here. Moreover, the performance, though not without its interpretative rough edges, was an impressive one – unusually strong and decisive in the first movement, and with an almost angular gait in the famous Scherzo. Marginally too restive in mood, the slow movement brought excellent ensemble playing, with the vigorous finale seeming less of an ’added on’ formal solution than is often the case.

In the context of his chamber output as a whole, Brahms’s quartets rarely receive a positive press. Less motivically obsessive than its C minor companion, while more coherent overall than its B flat successor, the A minor conceals a Schubertian pathos beneath its technical finish, with the relation in performance between them determining the effectiveness of the interpretation. The Bridge Quartet found an attractive wistfulness in the opening two movements, such that Schubert’s own A minor quartet was never far away, and if the ’quasi menuetto’ third movement lacked a degree of subtlety in the unfolding of its harmonic rhythm, the stamping rhythmic drive of the finale was tellingly sustained.

A performance, then, which brought out the humanity in Brahms’s music, and how apposite that the finale of Haydn’s ’Bird’ quartet (Op.33/3) should follow as an encore – rounding off an excellent evening’s music-making.

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