Notes and Editorial Reviews
Rubbra the sombre and sincere lyricist in chamber music that suited his serious and unadorned style so well.
String Quartets: No. 1 in f,
; No. 2 in E?,
; No. 3,
; No. 4,
Improvisation for Unaccompanied Cello
Lyric Movement for String Quartet and Piano,
Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn, “O Quando in Cruce,”
Dante Qrt; Michael Dussek (pn)
DUTTON 2010 (2 CDs: 130:54)
This isn’t a new release. CDLX 7114 (the String Quartets Nos. 2 and 4, the
) were first issued in 2001, while the rest on CDLX 7123 saw the light of day earlier this year. However, all this material deserves a spotlight. Few classical listeners are yet aware of Edmund Rubbra’s imaginative, idiosyncratic music; and while his symphonies (available complete on Chandos 9944) make for richly rewarding listening, I think it’s the chamber-music medium that plays into his finest qualities.
Those qualities include a luminous lyricism (the floating cantilena around five minutes into the String Quartet No. 2’s first movement, for example), and a strong feeling for string textures. Rubbra is not often thought of as a composer of sensuous music, but it’s true nonetheless, though it never attempts to be voluptuous. Equally distinctive is the composer’s mastery of and frequent recourse to linear counterpoint, an interest he imbibed from his beloved Elizabethan viol consort and madrigal composers, as well as from late Beethoven. From these sources, as well, he acquired a method of development that ignores standard procedures. Each of Rubbra’s mature works finds its own path forward, based on the composer’s contrapuntal shaping of its initially stated material. His mature work usually inverts the common practice of stating full themes and then breaking them apart, beginning instead with nothing more than a small figure and an interval or two that flower to assume a variety of intriguing, beautiful, shapes along a path toward their respective conclusions.
The Fourth Quartet has sometimes been considered the most subtly conceived of the series, while the author of both sets of liner notes to this release, John Pickard, considers the Third Quartet’s Adagio his most imposing quartet movement. I’d suggest the Second Quartet, though, as the first to play, for the direct expressive appeal of all four movements. After that, the rest all falls into place. Listening to Rubbra’s music is a lot like being in the company of a good friend who has thought long and hard about profound matters—and it shows without longwinded self-consciousness.
Also included on this release are the Cello Sonata and
, both written for the formidable skills of William Pleeth, and the very early, somewhat Fauré-like
(all that remains of a discarded string quartet from the 1920s, which went through four revisions). The
was composed for solo viola but then transcribed for two violas. Its 15 variations possess great gravitas, while the consciously applied archaisms never sound self-conscious in Rubbra’s style.
In a previous review of the Griller Quartet’s recording (Dutton 9792) of Rubbra’s Second Quartet, I found that performance more intense than this one. My opinion hasn’t changed, but what’s heard on these discs hardly provides examples of an also-ran. The Dante Quartet is technically adept, with a beautiful, restrained tone. Its members make music together, as opposed to playing together. They know how to separate and balance the complex inner strands of Rubbra’s contrapuntal writing, and how to imply rhythmic movement when none is expressly stated. The aforementioned Adagio of the Third Quartet may be their best work on the album. It achieves a radiant calm that few quartet ensembles have the time or inclination these days to accomplish. With excellent sound, this set is strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
These two discs have now been reissued as a single slip-cased set and a very cogent collection they make too.
The heart of the above pair of discs is the complete string quartets of Edmund Rubbra. This is not the first time they have been recorded as a cycle. In the early 1990s, while Conifer were still buoyant, that company recorded the four in a slackly filled [45:28 + 38:04] two CD set 75605 51260 2. The young quartet involved was the Sterling. The Conifer has now been reanimated and made freshly available by ArchivCD. I half expect it to see it appearing Regis or Naxos.
First Quartet is dedicated to Vaughan Williams don't for one moment imagine that it will sound like that composer. That said, there are a few fleeting moments where it coasts close to that green and pleasant land. For the most part though this is of a piece with Rubbra’s First Symphony and then with the much later Piano Concerto. After an insistently morose
lento the finale launches one of those typical ostinati over which Rubbra pitches a quick-running vital sinuous tune; this time with much in common with his own Fifth Symphony.
Second Quartet is in four movements, the first and third being markedly longer than the other two: 8:39; 2:37; 7:31; 3:55. It was premiered in 1952 by the Grillers (whose recording has also been revived by Dutton on CDBP9792). They were the same quartet that premiered Bax's Third in the mid-1930s. The character of the two quartets (Bax’s and Rubbra’s) could hardly be more different: Bax, highly spiced, poetic and dramatic; Rubbra, Beethovenian, earnest, the abnegation of ornament. This monastic severity carries over into the ‘inscape’ of the
Cavatina which is an evolution of the adagios of Beethoven's last quartets. There are some lovely things in this quartet but its character overall seems too diffuse - something that cannot be said of Rubbra’s Third.
Third Quartet was a child (albeit a wise and knowing child) of the 1960s. Intense, grave, dense and then skittish. Overall though this is once again a work of Beethovenian introspection despite an
allegro leggiero that flies Tippett-like through the
Dark Night of the Soul. It ends with a modestly confident gesture.
Rubbra's last quartet, the
Fourth, is dedicated to that other sombre symphonist and quartet writer, Robert Simpson. Simpson, before he fell out with the BBC, was a doughty Rubbra and Brian champion within the Corporation. It was as a result of his ‘street-fighting’ skills that Rubbra managed to secure various symphony broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s including key broadcasts of the symphonies conducted by Groves (1 and 2) and fellow Northamptonian Malcolm Arnold (3 and 4). The Fourth was premiered by the Amici who were, in 1978, to record Bax's Third Quartet for Lewis Foreman’s Gaudeamus LP label. The Rubbra is in two concentrated movements vital with both dancing and serious material. John Pickard in his liner note reminds us that the themes and their treatment are related to the composer's wonderful Eleventh Symphony - itself a miracle of succinctly communicated drama. In the second movement of the quartet the music rises inexorably to a shiningly substantial and shudderingly heroic statement (5.32, tr.8) before settling into sempiternal silence. The following downward curvature is almost too steep. I do wonder whether that subsiding should have been more protracted. Is this at the door of Rubbra or of the Dantes? Concise expression is the order of the day in the Eleventh Symphony where form and substance are perfectly matched and resolved. Rubbra could have allowed himself more time in the quartet to trace a steady descent to silence - the sort of thing that the usually more discursive Pettersson and Hovhaness managed with a surer touch.
The six minute
is typically serious Rubbra. It prompts thoughts of the Bach suites for solo cello, of the amber-toned reflections of Bax's
Rhapsodic Ballad and, with uncanny closeness, the Finzi Cello Concerto.
Cello Sonata has that trademark occluded lyricism. It begins with all the potency of Rubbra's beetling
Soliloquy (cello and orchestra); recorded by Rohan de Saram on Lyrita and by Du Pré on Cello Classics. Rather like the
Improvisation this too might occasionally remind you of the Finzi Cello Concerto both in its singing lines and its Bachian contouring. The movements are laid out: slow - fast - slow.
Lyric Movement is a single movement piece - the earliest across these two discs. It represents a path that was fully subsumed into his mature style. This is Rubbra in densely pastoral style shadowing the Howells of the
Fantasy String Quartet and even more so of the 1915 Piano Quartet. The form is instantly recognisable as a Cobbett ‘phantasy’ although that name does not appear in the title.
Byzantine Meditation was written for violist Maurice Loban, originally for solo viola. He premiered it in December 1962. Rubbra later arranged it for two violas as featured here. It is the most severe work across the two discs with little in the way of surface attraction or drama. The work owes something to the austere Holst - say in the
Lyric Movement for viola and the
Four Songs for voice and solo violin although, in fairness, those two works have a more open lyrical heart than this work.
Wonderful discs making conveniently available vibrant and sincerely expressed music of unaffected profundity. The music is well supported in each case by the booklet notes, by performing insight and by a closely engaged recording.
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
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