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Frank Bridge
05 Oct 2012

Frank Bridge Song Focus

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was a professional violinist and violist, a talented conductor, a versatile composer and skilled teacher; yet he remains something of an enigma and his music relatively unknown.

Frank Bridge Song Focus

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Frank Bridge

 

Bridge’s compositional career divided into two distinct parts: initially influenced by the expressive romanticism of Fauré and Brahms, in the mid-1920s he embraced the radicalism of the Second Viennese School - evidence of both his openness to new European musical developments and possibly of a loss of faith in the lyrical idiom of the past following the First World War.

Bridge songs, of which there are more than fifty, belong to the earlier period, two thirds being written before 1907; as evidenced in this charming and thoughtfully planned programme - the first of two recitals forming a ‘Frank Bridge Song Focus’ at the Wigmore Hall - the songs are affecting, memorable and varied in form and scope, revealing a sensitive if not overly demonstrative or dramatic approach to world-setting.

Pianist Iain Burnside, the curator of the two concerts, devised a wonderful programme, assembling Bridge’s songs into poetic groupings and interposing songs by other, predominantly British composers. The sequences unfolded organically, with seldom a break between songs, soprano Ailish Tynan and tenor Robert Murray moving in understated fashion, to the centre of the platform in turn - or even performing, seated, from the side. The effect was to create a coherent, natural progression, foregrounding the songs and their sentiments, revealing links, developing evolving narratives.

We began with poetry of the ‘English Romantics’, the rapid cascading accompaniment of ‘Go not, happy day’ (Tennyson) launching the poet-speaker’s mood of relaxed, joyful ebullience as he rejoices in his love, which suffuses the whole world with a rosy radiance. Robert Murray pinpointed the simple sentiment with clarity and immediacy; similarly, ‘The Devon maid’ (Keats), delivered from the side of the platform, possessed a gentle wit, a slight rallentando, “And we will sign in the daisy’s eye/ And kiss on the grass green pillow”, suggesting the singer’s bliss! Here, and throughout the evening, Murray’s diction was superb.

Ailish Tynan found a radiant tone for the poet-speaker’s declaration of love at the close of “Adoration” (Keats), in which Burnside’s subtly emphasised appoggiaturas delicately punctuated the still, quiet ambience. In Charles Parry’s ‘Bright Star’ and ‘La Belle dame sans merci’, Tynan painted the text beautifully, finding rhetorical force, “her eyes were wild”, and pathos in recalling the haggard knight-at-arms, “so woe-begone”. From the unison, folk-like beginning of the latter, the urgency of the narrative grew with the increasing tempo and complexity of texture, the piano both anticipating and echoing voice with haunting melancholy.

Murray opened the Heine sequence with ‘E’en as a lovely flower’, floating the opening line and finding a stirring change of colour to match the surprising harmonic shift as “sadness/ Comes stealing over my heart”, before closing in ethereal vein, with a vision of the loved one, “So lovely, pure and fair”. In contrast, ‘Whenever I hear the strain’ by Maude Valérie White, whirled with a wild energy, Murray injecting a disturbing, hostile resentment into the final lines, “Love tortures my heart and brain/ With many a bitter pang”. In the oft-set ‘Ich grolle nicht’, Murray drew on weighty, darker hues, while in the final short lyric, ‘All things that we clasp’, Tynan perfectly captured the ambiguity of the text.

Three Bridge settings of the little known Mary Coleridge formed ‘The Female Muse’. Burnside summoned an insouciant rhythmic lilt in ‘Thy hand in mine’, in which Tynan and Murray shared the stanzas, enhancing the symmetry of the lines, “They hand in mine … Thy heart in mine”. ‘Where she lies asleep’ is beautifully crafted and compelling, and Murray’s sweet pianissimo lured the listener into the intimate portrait of one who “sleeps so lightly”, before Burnside’s extrovert, declamatory accompaniment and the theatrical interchange between the singers in the subsequent ‘Love went a-riding’ brought the first half of the recital to a dramatic close.

We travelled to Ireland after the interval, and Tynan relished the rich resonances of ‘Goldenhair’ and the folky rubato of ‘So early in the morning’, the latter building through each verse to an exclamation of bright joy, before cadencing insouciantly. Murray used his head voice effective in ‘Mantle of blue’, the sparse texture and delicately sustained vocal line conjuring a lullaby-like luminosity.

The final sequence, ‘The Last Invocation’, rose to fresh expressive heights - perhaps ironically, for here the folksong settings of Benjamin Britten threatened to outshine the songs of his revered teacher, Bridge. Tynan was absolutely at home in the role of balladeer in ‘The trees they grow so high’, seated beside Burnside and spinning an effortless melody, poignantly telling of love and life and death. The complexity of Britten’s ‘The last rose of summer’ - a shimmering accompaniment ripple transforming into an alert, off-beat triplet, as the high melodic melisma gains rhythmic urgency and direction - reveals an imaginative, idiosyncratic approach to text setting which is absent from the more conventional Bridge settings. But, Murray and Burnside brought vigour and realism to Bridge’s ‘’Tis but a week’, with its trampling horses and gay blackbirds, tinged with the sadness of loss and times past. Similarly, the word-painting and imitative motifs of ‘Blow out, you bugles’ intensify the more abstract emotions of the latter part of Rupert Brooke’s sonnet, where Murray conveyed reverence, anguish and finally passionate sincerity.

Tynan’s tender rendition of the final song, Bridge’s ‘The last invocation’, indubitably confirmed the composer’s haunting imagination.

Claire Seymour


Programme:

English Romantics

Bridge: Go not happy day; Adoration
Parry: Bright Star
Bridge: The Devon Maid
Stanford: La Belle Dame sans merci

Heine

Bridge: E’en as a lovely flower
Ives: Ich grolle nicht
Bridge: The Violets Blue
White: Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen
Bridge: All things that we clasp

The Female Muse

Mary Coleridge: Thy hand in mine; Where she lies asleep; Love went a-riding

The Orange And The Green

Bridge: Golden Hair; Mantle of blue; So early in the morning; When you are old

The Last Invocation

Britten: The trees they grow so high
Bridge: What shall I your true love tell?; ’Tis but a week
Britten: The last rose of summer
Bridge: Into her keeping; Blow out you bugles; The last invocation

Ailish Tynan, soprano; Robert Murray, tenor; Iain Burnside, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday, 26th September 2012.

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