by Walter Simmons
RUBBRA: Symphonies: No. 5; No. 10. Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby. A Tribute. BLISS: Checkmate: Five Dances. Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (Symphony No. 5);West Australian Symphony Orchestra (Bliss); Bournemouth Sinfonietta conducted by Hans-Hubert Schonzeler. MUSICAL HERITAGE SOCIETY MHS-827285Y (two discs), produced by David HArvey and Brian Couzens.
Edmund Rubbra died earlier this year, at the age of 85, one of the finest of those to carry on the true symphonic tradition into our time. Although record companies like Chandos and Lyrita have begun to make Rubbra’s contribution known to the “serious record collector,” the mainstream music world knows virtually nothing of his magnificent legacy, partly because major conductors, whose ignorance defines the limits of what is performed by the more visible orchestras, are largely unaware of his existence. This is especially regrettable because Rubbra is the sort of 20th-century composer whom the mainstream music world is presumably looking for: that is, a composer with a unique personal vision, capable of illuminating and enriching human experience, while using a language that is accessible enough not to obscure his meaning from the general listener. There is no great shortage of such composers, but Rubbra is one of the most rewarding, with 11 symphonies that document nearly half a century in the evolution of a deeply sincere and compassionate spiritual/philosophical perspective. Devoid of cheap tricks or meretricious effects, Rubbra’s music is consistently noble and lofty, yet never pretentious (except to those for whom simply to strive toward a major metaphysical statement is a pretense). For these reasons, his music has often been compared with Bruckner’s, although I find that Rubbra offers an experience of broader dimensions.
As a (presumably unintentional) memorial, Musical Heritage Society is reissuing as a set two Chandos releases devoted largely to the music of Rubbra (Chandos ABR-1018, reviewed in Fanfare 6:6, pp. 158-59; Chandos CBR-1023/CHAN-8378, reviewed in Fanfare 8:3, pp. 233-34). The relatively large membership of the Musical Heritage Society is fortunate in having this music made so inexpensively and so readily available to them—especially because one of the works—the Symphony No. 5—is an ideal introduction to the Rubbra symphonies.
Composed in 1948, the Fifth represents something of a departure from Rubbra’s previous symphonies in its adherence to more conventional norms, its balanced contrasts of mood, and its more moderate emotional cast in particular. While perhaps not Rubbra’s most profound work, it is by no means shallow; but it does provide an especially accessible initiation to the procedures through which his symphonic structures are built: the slow, largely polyphonic unfolding of material whose identity is maintained through intervallic unity. Abrupt shifts in mood and sharp contrasts are avoided in favor of the gradual accumulation of energy and complexity. While the second and fourth movements approach an uncharacteristic levity that is less to my taste (which is admittedly peculiar in its preference for consistency of mood), the first and third movements reveal moments of an almost Mahlerian elegiac lyricism that haunt the listener long after the work is done.
The Symphony No. 10, composed in 1974, represents considerable further development, though it remains unmistakably the product of the same sensibility. It is a relatively brief (17 minutes) symphony in one movement, fully integrated by an overall consistency of vision and tone. It is more abstract and less overtly melodic than the Fifth, but direct and sincere at all times. One of the marvels of Rubbra’s mature work is its open-endedness, the sense of freedom and spontaneity with which it appears to unfold, but which never seems aimless or episodic thanks to the motivic discipline and logic that prevails. Listening to Rubbra’s music, one cannot fail to feel close to the spirits of Roman Catholicism and Buddhism that seemed to exert a strong influence on the content and tone of his work. His symphonies are reflections on the ebb and flow of life and the cosmos, delivered by a benign but somewhat removed observer—unhurried without being prolix, improvisatory without being digressive. These contemplations may be tender or tempestuous, but they are always gracefully articulated. Their somber tone and lofty perspective are likely to suggest Sibelius, especially in the Tenth Symphony, where the similarity is quite strong. But Rubbra achieves a linear coherence that often eluded his Finnish predecessor.
In addition to these two symphonies, a couple of less important works are also included in the set. A Tribute was composed in 1942, in honor of the 70th birthday of Vaughan Williams. Similar in style to Rubbra’s contemporaneous symphonic movements, it consists of a solemn, long-breathed introduction, followed by a brief, rather stiff-edged quasi-scherzo.
Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby is a diverting suite constructed in 1938, along the lines of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances—light and refreshing in tone, but somewhat subdued in coloration, befitting the temperament of the composer-arranger.
In this context the suite from Sir Arthur Bliss’s earliest ballet, Checkmate (1937), seems a little out of place. The music is bright, cinematic, and colorful in its post-Elgarian, cosmopolitan, English urbanity, but its substance is quite trivial.
Conductor Hans-Hubert Schönzeler is known as a Bruckner specialist, so his attraction to Rubbra is not surprising. While his interest in the music is welcome, his performances tend to be a little stiff and cold. More flexibility, or perhaps a more polished orchestra, might help.
Chandos recordings are justly praised for their fine sound quality, which is reflected in this reissue. But Chandos is also known for its impeccable surfaces—among the best in the world—and Musical Heritage Society is not, unfortunately. This set is recommended, then, to those who want an inexpensive introduction to the music of Rubbra and don’t mind the risk of noisy surfaces. Others are urged to locate the still-quite-available Chandos originals, premium-priced, but premium-quality.