Bridge to Somewhere
The Prometheus Trio shows why British composer Frank Bridge deserves attention; and strong Mozart, Saint-Saens.
The Prometheus Trio has taken a shine to Frank Bridge (1891-1941), an English composer with just a toehold on musical posterity. Violinist Timothy Klabunde, cellist Scott Tisdel and pianist Stefanie Jacob played Bridge’s 1907 Phantasie in C minor last December. Monday night, the three opened their season in part with Bridge’s Trio No. 2, from 1929.
As an encore, they played the much earlier Valse Russe, partly for its salon charm and partly to show how radically Bridge’s style had changed by 1929. You might mistake the Valse for Fritz Kreisler. You might mistake the Trio No. 2 for Bartók. But it’s British Bartók, hold the Hungarian paprika.
In 1929, this must have been a “difficult” piece, with its complex, dissonant harmonies and occasionally violent gestures and rhythms. It remains a monster to play, shot through with tricky rhythmic figures that must interlock precisely among the parts. (That Scherzo, a mikrokosmos teeming with busy little rhythmic organisms, must have been especially hard to put together.)
But conceptually, it’s not so hard; these days, we’re accustomed to extensive development of germinal cells of music, as opposed to themes you can whistle. Read Tisdel’s program notes, and you’ll have no problem locating yourself in Bridge’s forms.
Bridge shows a fabulous sonic imagination in this piece, right from the start. A magical sort of Rhine Gold shimmer emanates from a high piano arpeggio. Pedaled into endless resonance, it floats around the strings as they outline the major-third/minor-third motto that permeates the first movement and recurs in the fourth. Jacob knows some trick of touch and pedal that makes a Steinway sound like a celesta, and it was just perfect for bit.
The players warmed up for Bridge’s intensity with a Mozart charmer, the Divertimento à 3, K. 254, from 1776. This witty entertainment begins with an Allegro charged with considerable momentum, arrested here and there by hesitations between phrases. The Prometheans made wonderfully subtle comedy of these moments, and were otherwise in tune with the spirit of the music. Klabunde played lyrically just on the cusp of schmaltz, perfect for the Adagio. And the threesome had some fun contrasting the polite bits of the closing, dance-like Rondeau with the blustery bits.
The players tripped lightly then bounded boisterously through the first movement of Saint-Saëns’ Trio No. 1, Opus 18. A few wrong-note thorns in the piano thickets did not dampen the joyful abandon of the music.
A primal, bagpipe drone rings in the strings in the second movement, in which a medieval-sounding chant is the main character, and in the third, which seems to be set partly at a medieval village dance. Curious, and charming.
The big, Romantic boil of a finale leads, disarmingly, to the repose of a chorale at the eye of the storm. The players, in firm command all the way, sprung Saint-Saëns’ plot twist with great skill and insight, then rushed back into the maelstrom.
Throughout the concert, Jacob, Tisdel and Klabunde showed unanimous conviction in every phrase along the way to sure, settled interpretations. All three, but Klabunde in particular, played with an ear toward expressive nuance, especially in terms of timbre. Monday’s concert was an inspiring start to the new season and further evidence of a fruitful and deepening partnership.
This program, given at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 9.
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