Bridge: Piano Quintet; String Quartet No, 4; Three Idylls

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COMPOSERS: Bridge
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Piano Quintet; String Quartet No. 4; Three Idylls
PERFORMER: Goldner Quartet; Piers Lane (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67726

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This is an absolutely splendid disc, with powerful, committed performances that illuminate Frank Bridge’s mastery of chamber music in two major scores, early and late, as well as the famous Idylls of 1906: programming that offers a fine introduction to Frank Bridge’s astonishing stylistic range.

There remains something teasingly mysterious about the second of Bridge’s Idylls – all that sidelong harmonic subtlety lavished on something that’s virtually a salon waltz – which amply explains why it so fascinated Benjamin Britten (who took it as the subject of his famous Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge).

On this disc the three Idylls are the tasty filling between sterner stuff: on the one hand the impressive post-Fauréian Piano Quintet of 1912, masterfully reworked from an earlier effort of 1905; on the other his Fourth and last String Quartet of 1937, one of the most harmonically and contrapuntally advanced British works of its time.

To create the final version of his Piano Quintet Bridge, as well as radically revising the balance and harmony, fused the two inner movements into a slow movement with scherzo-episode, lending the whole design greater unity. But he did not tone down the virtuoso piano part, which has its almost Rachmaninovian moments.

Between this and the Fourth Quartet lies the great rift of World War I: Bridge’s emotional reactions to that European catastrophe forced him to reconsider the very basis of his art, and the optimism of the Quintet gives way in Quartet No. 4 to a work that challenges comparison with any of Bridge’s European contemporaries: its first movement, especially, displays quartet-writing on a par with Berg and Zemlinsky.

The stylised minuet of the central movement and the ardent fiddling of the finale are more obviously ‘English’ in style, yet it remains a neglected masterpiece.

The Goldner Quartet launch into that first movement with the kind of emotional and technical confidence that this complex, many-faceted music demands. They are not fazed by Bridge’s very fluid textures, moments when all four players are virtually independent of one another vying with solid rhythmic unisons.

Their choice of tempos and relaxed application of rubato serves the more fantastic aspects of the piece well. Unlike the Brindisi Quartet on Continuum, they do not hurry the music unduly, and enjoy a much more natural acoustic, with better balance; a wider dynamic range, too.

With the rarely-heard Piano Quintet there’s even less competition, and although the Coull Quartet with Alan Schiller produced a good version for ASV, this one strikes me as more passionate, and again presented in superior sound.

Here Piers Lane is a very idiomatic partner to the Goldners: he has the full measure of the piano part and especially the contrasted moods and characters of the middle movement.

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Along with the delicious performance of the Idylls this is a self-recommending release and should win more fans to Bridge’s music. Calum MacDonald