It doesn't take a chauvinist to judge Bridge worthy of this company, and his Third Quartet was by far the most challenging and masterly work in the Bridge Quartet's Wigmore Hall concert in London on Wednesday. Its first movement is warmly romantic, lyrical and complex, yet it doesn't suggest any other composer - not even Scriabin or Berg, the two names most often invoked in connection with Bridge.
The sophisticated harmonies of the muted middle movement are punctuated by two rising plucked notes on the viola, Bridge's own instrument, which are finally extended to three on the cello, landmarking the musical scenery in a way which is helpful without seeming contrived.
The crowning glory is the final movement, the most powerfully driven and also the most crowded with ideas. And Bridge doesn't allow himself a facile, up-tempo conclusion, but ends with a slow epilogue that is thought- provoking rather than sentimental.
The Bridge Quartet had unearthed from the British Library two surviving movements of a quartet that Delius wrote in 1888, the year he left the Leipzig Conservatory, and this was the European premiere. One movement is slow, with a lilting section briefly recalling Grieg, Delius's mentor. The other is faster - yet not really fast music - and ends with a strange, repeated phrase built up ominously over a trill. Apart from the predominance of triple time, Delius's mature style is nowhere apparent, yet the music is not an academic exercise either.
Twenty eight years later, Delius was no more inclined to write music which gave quartet players any significant amount of independence. Yet his mature String Quartet of 1916 is characteristic of his harmonic subtlety and melodic freshness from the very first bar. The fourth and final movement floats long ribbons of melody in a way that makes a formal conclusion improbable, and the ending is just as strange and unexpected as in the student work.
The Quartet's scherzo and slow movement are both simple tri- partite designs, and Delius gives his superb ear for colour freer play. They are also less thickly written than the outer movements.
As an encore, the Bridge Quartet played Percy Grainger's arrangement of "Molly on the Shore", in which each member enjoyed a solo spot without hogging the limelight.