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CD Review

Edmund Rubbra

  • The Morning Watch, Op. 33
  • Symphony #9 "Sinfonia Sacra," Op. 140
Lynne Dawson, soprano
Della Jones, alto
Stephen Roberts, baritone
BBC National Chorus & Orchestra of Wales/Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN9441 56:55
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Summary for the Busy Executive: The vision speaks.

Rubbra studied with Gustav Holst, among others. A poor boy, he grew up in a non-musical family and had to make his way without the cushion of independent means. He became a chamber musician and an outstanding teacher. In the late 1940s, Rubbra converted to Roman Catholicism, and a strong religious thread runs through his music. Like his master before him, he became fascinated with Eastern religion and culture. Many have singled out his symphonic cycle as his great achievement, but I must say that every piece I've heard has been at least sturdily made and filled with compelling argument.

Like many of his generation - Alwyn, Arnold, Rawsthorne, Lloyd, and so on - Rubbra doesn't create a new, instantly-recognizable, personal idiom, as Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton, and Britten did. Instead, he extends in his own way a received musical language - in this case, Holst's. However, Holst went through several twists and turns, all the while turning out masterpieces. Yet these seldom resemble one another. Rubbra takes from Holst's final, non-folky period - the one which yielded the Terzetto and the scherzo movement from his unfinished symphony. It's analogous to the Vaughan Williams of the Piano Concerto and the Symphony in f. Rubbra also catches Holst's enthusiasm for Tudor music, particularly for the instrumental fantasia. But he doesn't simply rewrite Holst. Like the Tudor fantasias of Gibbons, Holst's long movements tend to break into sections, rather than develop. You tend to remember this or that wonderful section, but not how you got from one to the other. Rubbra seems to take as his model the fantasias of Byrd, especially the one on "Browning." Rubbra stresses a kind of transformation - not classical sonata-allegro development exactly - but how one idea becomes another through a series of variations. Rubbra does write movements one can analyze as sonata-allegro, as well as scherzo and trio, rondo, and song form. Nevertheless, the main interest for me lies not in watching for the markers but in attending to a line of thought.

Some have criticized Rubbra's orchestration as monochromatic. In an important essay, written for the general public, which surveys Rubbra's early symphonies, Harold Truscott makes an analogy to Brahms and comments that "a Rubbra symphony scored in Mahler's manner would be ridiculous." Truscott pays his compliment with the left hand, so to speak. Of course, I happen to think Brahms a wonderful orchestrator, but that's me. In Brahms and Rubbra both, the orchestration serves the argument so well that it hardly ever calls attention to itself. Both Rubbra and Brahms have several examples of works colorfully scored - think of the Haydn Variations or the first Serenade of Brahms, Rubbra's orchestration of Brahms' Handel Variations or the finale to the fifth symphony. The orchestration is almost never the point or the source of interest; the clarity and unfolding of the argument is.

Two first recordings. The Morning Watch, written in the Forties, links up - perhaps tenuously - with Holst, whose late choral work Evening-watch represents Holst at his most harmonically advanced. Both texts come from the late Metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan. It begins with a slow, beautifully singing instrumental Prélude that rises from middle to the high registers - a theme and working out which would not be out of place in a symphony. Indeed, Rubbra considered including it as a movement of a projected choral symphony, just to give you some idea of how it moves. It takes up more than a third of entire work. In its feeling of inevitable march to an emotional peak, it reminds me of Brahms' large chorus-and-orchestra pieces. The entrance of the choir crowns the Prélude, raising the emotional level still higher with the opening lines of Vaughan's poem:

O joys! Infinite sweetness! with what flowers,
And shoots of glory, my soul breaks and buds!

There are, of course, rhetorical fallbacks in the piece, but Rubbra places them so skillfully that you experience the entire work like the end of the second part of Faust - a constant drawing on toward heaven until the soul moves beyond sight. Although it closely follows the text, this forward impulse over the sizeable span of twelve minutes shows very clearly a master symphonist.

The Symphony #9 "Sinfonia Sacra" (subtitled "The Resurrection") represents, among other things, Rubbra's attempt to write a choral symphony. Undoubtedly one of the works closest to his heart, Rubbra filled it with tremendous music. Inspired by a painting by the Renaissance artist Bramante showing the risen Christ still suffering the agony of his wounds, Rubbra wrote, "Have today noted down the beginning of the Resurrection. I have waited for this moment for a long time." The work would take him over a decade to complete. It started life as an oratorio, a suggestion from his publisher. Rubbra struggled with it in this form, in the meantime writing his eighth symphony. He seems to have felt uncomfortable with the sprawl of oratorio and missed the concision, cohesion, and direction of his symphonic practice. Once he decided to cast it as a symphony (about seven years into the project), he worked steadily and to purpose. It was the one work of his he wanted recorded before his death. It wasn't, mainly because his music was almost throughout his life known to so few. As Truscott writes in his essay, "Rubbra's symphonies have not so far been given the chance to show whether or not they can be popular, their public and broadcast performances being miserably few." At one time, of the symphonies, only the fifth had a recording, and only since the composer's death have all symphonies been available at one time. As I already noted, this CD (1996) marks the recording première of the ninth, close to twenty-five years after it was written.

The symphony tells the story of the Resurrection: the death on the cross, the entombment, the rolling away of the rock, and the appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples at Emmaus. We may ask whether this comes across as a symphony. To me, #Unlike the Vaughan Williams "Sea" symphony (also choral), this strikes me as a cantata or, as the liner notes point out, a Bach Passion, particularly with the ending of major sections by a chorale. Furthermore, the narrative, which Rubbra sets as recitative (often the most moving parts of the symphony, oddly enough), plays havoc with a symphonic rhetorical line. Rubbra does play with transforming a basic set of motives, but a symphony "happens" in larger units. This work breaks up into "numbers," despite Rubbra's motific glue. Nevertheless, does it have to be a symphony in the first place? If we accept what we hear without bringing our expectations of the form, the music rewards us. The narration (here sung by contralto rather than by tenor, as in Bach's Passions) provides a rich, human warmth to the story, as if the testimony of one actually witness to the events nurtured those of us who weren't. The chorus announcing Jesus's resurrection ("Resurrexi, et adhunc tecum suum") dances ecstatically. Furthermore, Rubbra packs a punch in at the end, where it counts, with a powerful setting of Hassler's tune "O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden" (known in English as "O sacred head, now wounded") to the words "Thy blessing be upon us," making the theological point that through Christ's wounds, we are redeemed.

I can't call the symphony a total success. One does encounter dry spells during which the story's advancement doesn't evoke a corresponding advancement of the music. We seem to endure "getting through" the plot so that we can hit the next musical high. For a believer like Rubbra, the story may well be enough. Someone like me, however, needs convincing. Still, there's enough to make me glad Chandos bit the bullet and recorded this testament of a major British symphonist.

Furthermore, the performances from Hickox and his orchestra are stunning. The chorus has diction problems, but one can always read the liner notes for the text - and you'll probably need them. The soloists range from good to excellent. Lynne Dawson as Mary Magdalene sings well but possesses a tiny voice, at times insufficiently supported. Stephen Roberts as Jesus does better - everything I've heard from him shows great style - but Rubbra doesn't give him much musically. It must be hard to conceive of what the Lord might sing. The winner here is Della Jones, who invests essentially recitative with genuine feeling - a difficult thing to bring off without hokery. Hickox shapes these pieces beautifully. They aren't easy. Rubbra's music needs long acquaintance, despite the beauties of its surface. For a first recording, Hickox's reading borders on the miraculous. An outstanding disc from this conductor, to me the finest current exponent of a certain part of the British musical spectrum. Chandos engineers have given him a rich, clear sound, and beautiful balances of all the forces. I doubt one could approach this in real life, but since a recording isn't real life, why not do it?

Copyright © 1999, Steve Schwartz