Wednesday 5 October 2022

Britten & Bridge's viola: Hélène Clément explores the two composers' shared love of the instrument

Frank Bridge: Cello Sonata, arr. Hélène Clément, There is a Willow Grows aslant a Brook, Three Songs, Britten: Elegy, Lachrymae: Hélène Clément, Alasdair Beatson, Sarah Connolly; Chandos
Frank Bridge: Cello Sonata, arr. Hélène Clément, There is a Willow Grows aslant a Brook, Three Songs, Britten: Elegy, Lachrymae: Hélène Clément, Alasdair Beatson, Sarah Connolly; Chandos
Reviewed 5 October 2022 (★★★★½)

A beautifully realised and highly imaginative recital tracing the viola in the music of Frank Bridge and his pupil, Benjamin Britten from a transcription of Bridge's Cello Sonata right through to Britten's Lachrymae

The viola is one of the many threads that link Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten. Bridge had a career as a professional viola player before devoting himself solely to composition, whilst Britten was a keen viola player as a young man and Bridge would give Britten his viola when the young man left for the USA in 1939

Yet, neither man wrote a major viola sonata. Despite Bridge's fine sonatas for violin and for cello, there is a lack of a viola one, whilst Britten tended to avoid classical forms and rarely wrote sonatas or symphonies. 

On this disc from Chandos, viola player Hélène Clément (who plays in the Doric String Quartet) and pianist Alasdair Beatson explore Britten and Bridge's music for viola including her own transcription of Bridge's Cello Sonata, to make up the lack, alongside Britten's Lachrymae, plus shorter pieces including Britten's arrangement of Bridge's There is a Willow Grows aslant a Brook and his Three Songs (with mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly), and Britten's early Elegy. Another link is the Clement is playing Bridge's fine 1843 Francesco Guissani viola that he gave to Britten in 1939 and which is now owned by Britten Pears Arts.

We begin with Clément's transcription of Bridge's Cello Sonata. The sonata has been adapted before, but in this new transcription Clément sticks to the work's original keys. Bridge wrote the sonata between 1913 and 1917, a period when his style was beginning to change (something that is reflected in the work). The planned four-movement structure developed into a two-movement one, conflating the central slow movement and scherzo, and with Bridge giving it an arch-like structure (something he favoured) by making the final movement into a coda reflecting the opening. 

The music starts with a sense of endless melody with Clément's fluid and flowing approach to the opening. She and Beatson have a very poetic response to the movement's changeability. Bridge's music never stays still for long and whilst there are moments of drama and passion, it is the sense of creating a magical sound-world that Clément and Beatson really give to this movement. The second is equally poetic but far darker. Initially rather interior, the performers then bring out the vividly edgy elements, yet always moving fluidly between moods. Overall, Clément and Beatson's poetic account of the work makes you forget it wasn't written for the viola in the first place.

Bridge wrote There is a Willow Grows aslant a Brook in 1927 for viola and small orchestra, and Britten made this arrangement for viola and piano in 1932 when he was studying the Royal College of Music. Bridge described it as an 'impression'. The work inhabits a dark, complex and tonally elusive world and both performers bring out the work's dark intensity and highlight the way Bridge's music of the period was far more influenced by European trends than that of his English contemporaries. This is a finely poetic account of a fascinating short work. Britten's arrangement was not performed until 1988, and it is a shame that it is not better known.

Bridge's Three Songs for medium voice, viola and piano, setting texts by Matthew Arnold, Heine (translated by Kathe Freiligrath Kroeke) and Shelley, were premiered in 1908, and the viola player at the premiere, Audrey ffolkes, had been a fellow student with Bridge at the Royal College of Music. She became Britten's viola teacher when he was 10 and was responsible for introducing Britten to Bridge.

In 'Far, far from each other' we can enjoy the way that voice and viola intertwine, with both Connolly and Clément performing with a lovely combination of passion and poise. 'Where is it that our soul doth go?' is dark and intense; it receives a thoughtful performance highlighting the sense of the poet exploring his inner world. Finally, the passionately flowing 'Music, when soft voices die'.

Britten's Elegy for solo viola was written when he was just 16 and seems to have been written for himself to play. It is remarkable piece, spare, angular yet lyrical.

Britten wrote his Lachrymae: Reflections on a song by John Dowland in 1950 for viola player William Primrose, only later arranging the work for viola and small orchestra (a version premiered in 1977 after Britten's death). A seamless set of variations on Dowland's song If my complaints could passion move, the work holds back the work's theme until the very end. The sound world is mysterious, the harmonies complex and elusive. The magical opening is dark and intense, and throughout the tone is veiled and we get atmospheric hints rather than something direct. The performance from Clément and Beatson is mesmerising, holding you in a spell, whilst both also play with real virtuosity at times. Throughout they turn on a pin when it comes to the music's changeability, from eerie to suggestive to vigorous. Then at the end, the sound world superbly relaxes into the harmonies of Dowland's original.

This is a very imaginative disc that successfully captures a thread linking Britten and Bridge, and listening to the music's progression from Bridge's pre-war style to his more austere, European-influenced late style to Britten's mature style of the 1950s is completely fascinating and illuminating, highlighting the links between the two. Performances from Clément, Beatson and Connolly are uniformly superb, a highly recommended disc.

Frank Bridge (1879-1941), arr. Hélène Clément - Cello Sonata (1913-1917)
Frank Bridge, arr. Benjamin Britten - There is a Willow grows aslant a Brook (1927)
Frank Bridge - Three Songs (1906-1907)
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - Elegy (1930)
Benjamin Britten - Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of Dowland (1950, revised 1970)
Hélène Clément (viola)
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Alasdair Beatson (piano)
Recorded Potton Hall, Suffolk, 18-20 December 2021
CHANDOS CHAN20247 1CD [61:16]

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