The English composer Frank Bridge (1879–1941) is often mentioned in concert program notes, particularly when he is not the composer whose work is being performed. This is because he is most famous today as the composition teacher of a young Benjamin Britten, considered by many to be the greatest British composer of the 20th century.
Yet Bridge was many things, notably a violist as well as conductor. While his composition output has not yielded a large number of still-popular works, Bridge’s music is not entirely lost to today’s concert halls. Last week, his Piano Quintet in D Minor was the major work on the program at the final concert of the season at UChicago Presents.
Englishman Benjamin Grosvenor was the pianist and he offered galvanizing strength and intricate, delicate detail to this underperformed work. He joined the headline group for the April 28 concert, the Doric String Quartet, made up of violinists Alex Redington and Ying Xue, violist Hélène Clément and cellist John Myerscough.
The Bridge piano quintet was started in 1904, completed in 1905 and then revised (taking the work from four movements to three) in 1912. It is this final revision that is generally performed and was performed last Friday night in Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St. It opens softly with the strings offering a melancholy melody before the piano enters with potent low rumbles from the left hand and murky chords in the right. Then the viola and piano embark on a wistful journey, with the top line moving from string voice to string voice before all five players are once again together, now in full-throated cry that quickly dissolves into more agitation.
The musicians exhibited marvelous flow throughout, as Bridge often shifts ideas quickly, yet the players gave it natural expansiveness. There were moments of Edwardian charm, but this music also owes much to continental influences: French music of the era as well as a solid dose of Brahmsian flair.
Grosvenor’s piano had all the muscle required for Bridge’s big chordal sections, he knew which lines to emphasize with deliberate and distinct articulation, and he had a beautiful delicacy with the gentle phrases. He interacted with the quartet marvelously, at times providing a dark accompaniment to light singing violins, or at others providing the main melodic line that cuts right through all the strings.
First violinist Redington was particularly noteworthy for his light touch with high notes and a sweetness of tone that was like perfume. The quartet played with sensitivity and the players were never, ever short of passion.
One touching element of the concert was when cellist Myerscough spoke to the audience before the quintet. He told us that their violist, Hélène Clément, plays a Giussani viola from 1843 that was previously owned by Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten. (It is on loan to Clément by the Britten-Pears Foundation.) It turns out that Bridge gave the instrument to Britten in 1939 when Britten and his life partner Peter Pears left England for the U.S. That was the last time Bridge ever saw Britten.
It is also worth noting that Clément has her own Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten disc. It’s a Chandos recording of the Bridge cello sonata arranged by Clément herself for viola, along with other works by Bridge and Britten, all performed on the Giussani viola.
Also on the program was Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 50, No. 6. This quartet is known as “Frog,” not because of any croaky or jumpy elements in the music, but because the bowing movements in the finale were once described as being froglike.
There are light musical episodes within this quartet, but it is nonetheless serious music and the Doric players treated it thusly. There was gorgeous balance, with the inner voices of Xue and Clément shining through, while cellist Myerscough added valuable power and thrust at the bottom of the sound chain. Redington on first violin was restrained yet clear and bright. Their ensemble work was well oiled and they operated magnificently as a single unit.
The concert opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, “Serioso.” This is one of Beethoven’s most idiosyncratic quartets, but also highly interesting. The Doric String Quartet dove into it with gusto, although in the end this was the least satisfying work on the program.
The players were earnest and finely attuned to each other but I found their overall approach troublesome. They went with what I call the “emphasize the extremes” approach. Soft passages were extremely soft, sometimes to the point of being inaudible, other times to the point of being a little pitchy. Loud passages were very loud. Any sforzando was achieved with a sledgehammer. It was simply too much of a good thing.
The members of the Doric String Quartet are openly emotional and express that emotion not only on their faces but also in physical movements, sometimes of massive proportions. They would gyre and gimble as they played. The second violin wielded her vorpal bow with snicker-snack fervor. The cellist made frumious movements with his head, tossing his silky locks across his face while wide-eyed in uffish thought. The violist, clad in capri-length trousers and sporting gilded stilettos, galumphed her golden slippers hither and thither (under the seat, in front of it, to the sides) and often seemed to levitate out of her chair, only to fall back onto the seat and begin to burble or slither her feet again. The first violinist was expressive as well, but never to the “Jabberwocky” levels of his colleagues.
Reaction to all this emotion varies by concertgoer, and many enjoy seeing artists express themselves in any manner they wish. My guess is that younger audience members value this form of expression more than older ones, and if so, it would be delightful if UChicago Presents can tap into this younger audience in future seasons. The upcoming UCP season will be announced in June.
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