If you don't know any of Frank Bridge's orchestral music or if you are only familiar with the more famous works ('Enter Spring' or 'The Sea', say) this generously repackaged survey by the late Richard Hickox for Chandos should come as quite an ear-opener to you. And that's not least because of the sheer diversity of music it contains - from his early symphonic poems, rooted in the nineteenth century innovations of Liszt and his successors, to the more mature pieces such as those mentioned above that display an increasingly individual and sophisticated approach to structure and harmony; but of great value too in rounding out our knowledge of Bridge is the inclusion of music he wrote on commission - much of which might be termed 'light music' nowadays - and his orchestral songs, a genre he was to abandon as he matured and hardly central to his output yet still a collection of pieces that demonstrates his melodic gifts as well as his talent for subtle but apt scoring.
Of the two early symphonic poems, 'Isabella' (after Keats) made the strongest impression on me, perhaps because its construction is tauter and more clearly connected to a poetic narrative than the more nebulous programme that inspired its predecessor, 'Mid of the Night'; both works pale in comparison to the masterpiece, 'Enter Spring', with which they share the first disc but in their own way they make for rewarding listening and 'Isabella' certainly strikes me as worthy of an occasional outing in our concert halls.
One thing that has consistently struck me as I listen to Hickox's Bridge edition - both in the works I already knew from classic recordings and in those that were new to me - is Bridge's mastery of the orchestra: it is apparent even in the earliest works here and in the least "ambitious" - the Rabindranath Tagore settings, for example, which show a keen awareness of developments in the music of his time or the impressive 'Norse Legend', which for a four-minute orchestration of an early violin-and-piano miniature punches far above its weight. Happily, the sound quality throughout this survey is Chandos at its very best - the horn-led theme that dominates the opening and close of the 'Dance Rhapsody' rings out with spine-tingling impact, for example, and the majesty and sheer heft of the sea in Bridge's four-movement suite is beautifully captured; the engineers are no less successful in the more delicate passages - I have found myself holding my breath on more than one occasion at the start of the central episode in 'Enter Spring', the wonder and delicacy of this haunting passage is so marvellously captured here.
As far as alternative recordings are concerned there is some stiff competition in Bridge's most successful works: Charles Groves, for example, produced a classic recording of 'The Sea' in the 1970s, an issue which is still available on disc from EMI* and justly so; that said, I would find it hard to choose between his reading the score and that of Hickox - Hickox does, I feel, have the edge in the comparable recording of 'Enter Spring' (also on the EMI disc) but the more modern sound quality of this Chandos set strikes me as the only distinctive merit between the two recordings of Bridge's musical seascape and the Groves recording should perhaps be seen as an equally valid, supplemental recording to the one here rather than it being a case of either/or (and it's worth noting that it is available on a budget price sub-label of the EMI catalogue too). Much the same might be said of Julian Lloyd Webber's version of 'Oration' as well, although this is at time of writing still a full-price alternative**; Bridge enthusiasts will no doubt already have that version but the new listener coming to this music for the first time certainly need not fear that they are being short changed by the eloquent performance here.
For those that are interested in such matters, the discs are in cardboard sleeves within a slim-line card box; the liner notes for each original issue are collected together in a booklet and are a model of their kind, comprehensive and informative (if only all labels - including especially the major players in the industry - took such care over their products!).
If you haven't already guessed, this set gets a firm and enthusiastic recommendation from me; it's packed with riches, both in terms of the music itself and the performances. Although I already owned a few of the original issues (and alternative recordings of some works), buying this repackaged set seemed to me to still be the most economical way of completing my collection of Bridge's orchestral output and I am glad I did invest. I hope it goes some way towards getting more recognition for one of Britain's finest and most distinctive musical voices - certainly Bridge could hardly have hoped for better advocacy.
* Bridge. The Sea; Summer; Cherry Ripe; Enter Spring; Lament.
** Bridge - Oration; Phantasm; Concerto elegaico; Rhapsody