Somm have already released the complete piano music of John Ireland played by Mark Bebbington, and on the face of it, the new series of the comparable works by Frank Bridge looks to be more of the same. Certainly Bridge’s earlier efforts, like the two Capriccios and Three Sketches included in this first volume, seem cut from the same cloth as Ireland’s picturesque works, the title April having been used by both composers. But unlike Ireland, whose idiom became broader and mellower as he aged, Bridge’s music became tauter and more profound with time, especially after the trauma of the First World War. His largest piano work, the masterly Piano Sonata of 1921-24, which lasts fully thirty-five minutes in Bebbington’s fine performance, is the equal of anything being written on mainland Europe at the time—in fact, the piece prefigures a kind of seachange, after which Bridge’s music simply abandons the older nostalgic-pastoral tropes it shared with other British composers (and quite a few Australians, like Roy Agnew, Mirrie Hill, and Dulcie Holland) and moves into a spikier, more angular, world of increasing modernity. While his piano works do not quite attain greatness, there is no question that his last two string quartets do—not for nothing was he Benjamin Britten’s teacher.
The Piano Sonata does not entirely forgo the melancholic quality of Bridge’s earlier music. Instead it re-contextualises the previously decorative gestures as part of the syntax of a new, more dissonant approach, which has a significantly enhanced range and expressivity. Where the harmonic ambiguities of the earlier pieces served to provide a sense of regretful yearning, in the Sonata Bridge uses his newly-radicalised harmony to propel the structure, to maintain an unsettled tonality—the distant shadows of Berg’s Op.1 and Scriabin’s late miniatures fall across this music—and the first movement, with its hints of le Gibet, is a profoundly disturbing utterance. It is difficult to imagine what could follow this shattering, fifteen-minute lamentation, but Bridge has the answer: an elegaic slow movement consisting of a vastly more mature and tortuous revisiting of the old rhetoric of nostalgia. The Finale, a fiercely chordal Allegro radiates a sense of inexorable finality, without letting the harmonic complexity slip for a moment. I simply don’t know a better British piano work than this—prior to the Second World War, at least.
By comparison, the smaller works seem modest, and it is sensible that the Sonata end the CD. Nonetheless, there is a great deal to be enjoyed in the early salon pieces included here, the Capriccios, the Three Sketches—which include the perennial favourite Rosemary—and the Hour Glass, and they make an interesting comparison with the later, leaner, miniatures Vignettes de Marseilles (1925). There is no question that these Frank Bridge recordings are at least as fine, and even revelatory, as Bebbington’s previous series of John Ireland discs.