ENDNOTES, 7th October 2017
Frank Bridge Cello Sonata etc. at the West Malling International Festival of Music, reviewed by STUART MILLSON
‘Music is always important but even more so in difficult times. It brings people together to share what is good and enduring and underscores what we value.’ So writes Alan Gibbins, Chairman of the International Festival of Music held in the Kent town of West Malling and now in its seventh year. An event that is very much at the heart of the community (with many educational and outreach events to its credit), the Festival attracts Britain’s brightest performers in a repertoire that embraces Bach, Kodaly, Reger, Nielsen and many English composers.
The mediaeval Pilsdon Barn, situated behind a traditionally Kentish rag stone wall in the grounds of St. Mary’s Abbey, is becoming a well-known venue for classical music. For their concert on the 30th September, Chamber Domaine (Thomas Kemp, violin; Adrian Bradbury, cello; Sophia Rahman, piano) presented a number of works from the year 1917. Beginning with Frank Bridge’s deeply-felt and autumnal Cello Sonata, the ensemble also performed the lyrical Piano Trio No. 2 by John Ireland, a short piano waltz by Stravinsky, and the Chaconne Op. 31 by Carl Nielsen.
A mid-morning concert, the Bridge Cello Sonata gained in atmosphere from the late September sunshine; the trees in the grounds of St. Mary’s Abbey showing the beginnings of the “season of mellow fruitfulness”, with a fine sunlight entering the ancient timber structure of the Barn – making for a comforting, thoughtful, rural-in-spirit atmosphere. In such a setting, the English elegy at the heart of Bridge’s cello piece – beginning as it does with a vigorous, memorable tune which makes many re-appearances throughout the three-movement structure – found a perfect home.
Cellist Adrian Bradbury’s performance highlighted the split personality of Bridge’s music – that twin-character of English late-romanticism, yet with gradual and sudden appearances of a decidedly 20th-century sound-world. A conservative but also a modernist, little wonder that Bridge had such an influence on the young Benjamin Britten – and it could be that Britten’s domination of modern British music has obscured the reputation of his mentor. Frank Bridge definitely deserves a thorough rediscovery and reappraisal, with the Cello Sonata offering us a chance to enjoy a work entirely on the same artistic and emotional level as Debussy’s Cello Sonata, also dating from the years of the Great War.
Although “dark brown” in tone – almost Brahms-like – and the cello part possessing the strength of concerto writing, Bridge’s sonata comes close to Debussy at the beginning of the second movement: delicate timbres, introspection, and a feeling that we are looking out at a lost landscape, the inglorious war of the mechanised age somewhere in the distance. But here in the sonata, we seem safe, even though the musical language is unsettled and abstract. The music then gathers in elemental strength (reminding me of an orchestral work by Bax, entitled November Woods); this louder, more animated section building to a moment of extraordinary power – we sometimes forget that chamber music may also provide Mahlerian cries from the heart and intense torrents of sound. The piano writing is spellbinding in its harshness, and there is also a sense of great themes and ideas informing this music – the piano giving a disturbing, relentless accompaniment to the cello, spurred ever onward to the extremes of expression.
A breath of light makes an enchanting appearance in the latter stages of this highly-absorbing sonata – the intense drama pausing and collecting itself with a gentle restatement of the great first movement theme, before reaching an emphatic, compelling but not entirely triumphant conclusion. You are left with the feeling of having experienced a great story and of the composer firmly ending his work – but even so, the cadence with which it ends leaves something of the elegy hanging in the air.
The Nielsen and Ireland works which followed did not match the Bridge, but the Ireland Piano Trio offers much lyricism, highlighted by the beautifully light touch of Sophie Rahman and the equally sympathetic tone of Thomas Kemp’s clear, passionate violin playing. The sonata ends with a flourish – and the whole work has all the tuneful mastery of Ireland, and his gift for innocence and deep, sentimental reflection (the spirit which one finds in abundance in his many miniatures and landscape pieces for solo piano).
Nielsen’s Chaconne seemed a most un-Nielsen-like work. As a working piece for a pianist, the Chaconne clearly provides enjoyable material but I longed to hear those wilder, expansive and sometimes martial sounds which Nielsen brought to his six symphonies. Nevertheless, a very fine concert, and one hopes that news of West Malling’s festival will spread far and wide.
Stuart Millson is QR’s Classical Music Editor