Three Idylls – No.2
Piano Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge [London premiere]
Piano Quintet in D minor
Aronowitz Ensemble [Magnus Johnston & Nadia Wijzenbeck (violins), Tom Hankey (viola) and Guy Johnston and Marie Macleod (cellos)] with Nicholas Daniel (oboe) & Tom Poster (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 15 August, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
A programme that centred on the teacher-pupil relationship between Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten for this latest of the Proms Chamber Music series at Cadogan Hall. Bridge having developed the single-movement ‘phantasy’ form throughout his career, it was inevitable that Britten would follow suit: almost his earliest published work, the Phantasy for oboe and string trio (1932) gives notice of the linear contrapuntal writing and rhythmic clarity taken over from Bridge, allied to a deft interplay of sonata and rondo elements that sustains the piece through its plangent central stages, via those energetic passages on either side, to the arresting march sections that frame the whole – audibly enhancing the work’s scope as it emerges out of then finally returns to silence. Whatever its indebtedness to others (Hindemith getting a look-in), Britten was right to acknowledge the piece and this performance – purposefully yet poetically led by Nicholas Daniel – reinforced its worth.
Whether the belated emergence of Britten’s Piano Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1932) is likely to add much to his stock as a composer is debatable. Certainly the piece – which utilises the same theme from the second of the Three Idylls for string quartet (1906) as the ‘Frank Bridge Variations’ for string orchestra from five years hence – lacks nothing in formal discipline or technical finesse, though the content of those variations feels neither distinctive nor memorable in itself; with only the slower first and fifth hinting at a more considered response to the theme’s wistful plaintiveness. Tom Poster made the most of these along with the self-consciously virtuosic variations in between, and was right to retain the brief sixth variation with which Britten nonchalantly signs off. Beforehand, the Aronowitz Ensemble had set the piece in context with a sensitive rendering of the Idyll in question: a pity that there was not enough time to have heard the whole set.
The recital concluded with a fine account of Bridge’s Piano Quintet, heard in the 1912 revision (the original 1906 version is still extant and it is surprising, in an era intent on leaving no stone unturned, that it seems not to have been revived) which forms the likely culmination of the composer’s first phase. And, at just under 30 minutes, the piece has an expressive sweep comparable to those contemporaneous and more expansive works by Florent Schmitt and Joseph Holbrooke, which these performers brought out with a finely considered rendering of the first movement – its expressive richness typified by the emotional extremes of the development – then an Adagio of a soulful intensity thrown into relief by the agile scherzo at its centre. Perhaps their headlong approach to the finale made it just a little short-winded, but there was no doubting the ardour and panache with which this most imposing among Bridge’s earlier works was brought to its close. What lunchtime concerts were made for!