Blow, blow though winter wind
Music when soft voices die
When most I wink
Blow, blow though winter wind
Three Songs with Viola
Four Hymns from the Rig Veda
Three Songs on Poems of Humbert Wolfe
Three Songs on Poems of Rabindranath Tagore
Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone) & Iain Burnside (piano) with Mark Braithwaite (viola)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 18 October, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
While his chamber and (if to a lesser degree) orchestral music has enjoyed no mean revival over the past quarter-century, the song output of Frank Bridge has been slower to re-establish itself. This recital, after one at the end of September to have featured his earlier songs, focussed on those which brought his song-writing to its creative head in the mid-1920s.
As with all worthwhile song recitals, the programme was arranged into groups so as to allow for a measure of continuity and, to that end, restrict applause to where it was needed. Thus the opening group framed Roger Quilter’s elegant setting of Shelley’s Music when soft voices die (1926) – indicative of an expressive depth beyond that encountered in his ‘light’ music – and the slightly staid emotion in Bridge’s setting of Shakespeare’s sonnet When most I wink (1901) with their almost concurrent (1903 and 1905) settings of Shakespeare’s Blow, blow thou winter wind: impetuous and not a little blustery with the young Bridge, then appreciably subtler in Quilter’s more reserved though no less deeply-felt account.
Roderick Williams was the warmly assured exponent in this first group, while Susan Bickley essayed the Three Songs with Viola (1907) that mark an advance in Bridge’s integration of music and text. Whether in the equivocation of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Far, far from each other’, wistful profundity of Heine’s ‘Where is it that our soul doth go?’, or rapt inwardness of his own take on ‘Music when soft voices die’ – this is vocal-chamber writing of a high order. The presence of Mark Braithwaite enabled a rare outing for what are Bridge’s only pieces for viola and piano: the wistfully ruminative Pensiero (1905) and ebullient if overly rhetorical Allegro appassionato (1908) making one regret the lack of a mature viola sonata.
The first half ended with four of Holst’s Hymns from the Rig Veda (1908), a fine instance of the composer’s immersion in these Sanskrit texts through which he found a way of eschewing late-Romantic overkill. Hence the simmering intensity of ‘Ushas’ (Dawn) and hieratic manner of ‘Varuna’ (Sky), leading to the heartfelt resolve of ‘Faith’ then the joyous hymn of praise of ‘Indra’ (God of storm and battle) in which the two vocalists were exultantly as one. After the interval, Simon Rowland-Jones maintained this mood with Whirling (2007) – a setting from 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi in which mezzo, viola and piano combine in music whose cumulative harmonic density enhanced the aura of heightening ecstasy.
The final group of songs brought together a consummate selection of late songs from Bridge and Holst. The latter was represented by three of his 12 Songs on Poems by Humbert Wolfe (1929), a once highly regarded poet whose appealing though undeniably ‘period’ verse drew apposite responses from the ailing composer – whether in the ominous call-and-response of ‘Journey’s end’, the desolate soul-searching of ‘Betelgeuse’ or elusive whimsy of ‘Now in these fairylands’.
Attractive as these were, they were easily eclipsed by Three Songs on Poems of Rabindranath Tagore that constitutes the apex of Bridge’s song output. Once considered transitional pieces that were written while the composer was engaged on the Piano Sonata that is the defining work in his oeuvre, these find his involvement with an extended tonal idiom at its deepest and most affecting – whether in the aching regret of ‘Day after day’ (1922), the plangent emotional of ‘Speak to me, my love!’(1924), or the rising anguish of ‘Dweller in my deathless dreams’ (1925). The first two are occasionally heard in Bridge’s resourceful orchestrations (the third having been so arranged by Paul Hindmarsh), but there is nothing to fault in the piano originals – especially when realised with the sensitivity and poise brought to them (as throughout this recital) by Iain Burnside, so making for a song-cycle that ought to rank among the finest from the first half of the twentieth-century.
The evening came to an end in appropriate fashion with Bridge’s last original song. Compared to that by Holst, his take on Journey’s end (1925) is that of a more active emotional involvement – underlining the stark though never despairing resignation of Wolfe’s verse and, effortlessly realised by Roderick Williams, rounding off the present recital in spellbinding fashion.