Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is one of those composers whom people may know better today as the teacher of Benjamin Britten than as a leading exponent of the British pastoral movement of the early twentieth century.
Be that as it may, Bridge followed a career in Romanticism until the First World War changed his disposition and outlook on music. From rich, flowing, descriptive tone poems his music took a turn toward harsher, more dissonant, more modern paths, and subsequently his popularity declined. Critics nowadays tend to praise his later, more-mature works, but that may be a reaction against Romanticism itself, which is only just beginning to make a comeback in contemporary classical music. Like it or not, however, it is Bridge’s early work that continues to sell and, I assume, to give people pleasure.
This Naxos disc brings together three of the composer’s best-known tone poems, The Sea, Enter Spring, and Summer, and it adds a couple of brief Poems for Orchestra, based on short poems by Richard Jeffries, for good measure.
While all of the music is delightful, the highlight of the disc is The Sea, sounding for all the world like Debussy’s La Mer. I suppose you could say of the early Bridge that he was England’s answer to France’s Debussy and Ravel, weaving intricate little tapestries of light and color, musical portraits that impressionistically and expressionistically touch the heart and soul. For instance, he divides The Sea into four movements--“Seascape,” “Sea-Foam,” “Moonlight,” and “Storm”--all of them pretty much self-explanatory. If you like the descriptive qualities of La Mer, you’ll like The Sea, which Bridge wrote just a few years after Debussy wrote La Mer, and it must have influenced him.
Maestro James Judd presents each of the pieces fluidly and meaningfully, never stopping to linger too long for sentimental reasons yet never relegating the music to the tired-warhorse bin, either. It’s a nice, forthright approach that captures most of the beauty and charm of Bridge’s work.
There are two “however’s,” though. The first “however” is that this Naxos release goes head-to-head with the justly famous 1975 recording of much the same material by Sir Charles Groves on EMI, which to my ears is more transparent sonically and more idiomatic interpretively. Moreover, the EMI disc contains not only The Sea, Enter Spring, and Summer, but the tone poems Cherry Ripe and Lament as well. The second “however” concerns the counterarguments that the budget-priced Naxos disc is cheaper by a couple of dollars than the mid-priced EMI disc, that the Naxos disc may be easier to find, and that a lot people will prefer the slightly softer, more-muted Naxos sound to the brighter, sharper-edged EMI sound.
In any case, a person can’t go wrong with the Naxos disc. It’s beautiful music, and it’s beautiful sound.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: