by Walter Simmons
RUBBRA: Symphonies: No. 4; No. 10; No. 11. Richard Hickox conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. CHANDOS CHAN-9401 [DDD]; 58:22. Produced by Ralph Couzens.
This release is part of Chandos’ ongoing survey of the eleven symphonies of Edmund Rubbra, the English composer lived from 1901 to 1986. Rubbra belongs to neither the pastoral/nationalist school of English composers epitomized by Vaughan Williams, nor the urbane cosmopolitan group exemplified by Britten, Walton, and Tippett. His was an individual unmistakably English, voice, which found an ideal medium for expression in the large, abstract canvas of the symphony. Rubbra’s symphonies do not reflect the Austro-Germanic aesthetic ethos, with its emphasis on duality, conflict, and resolution. They derive more from the principles of Renaissance choral polyphony, especially its emphasis on open-ended linear metamorphosis. Rubbra’s symphonies are rather like reflections on the ebb and flow of life within the cosmos, shared by a compassionate yet somewhat detached observer — unhurried without being prolix, improvisatory without being digressive. These contemplations may be tender or tempestuous, but they are always gracefully articulated, devoid of extravagance or abruptness, and characterized by a pervasive spirit of dignity, nobility, and humanity. Their somber tone and lofty perspective may seem reminiscent of Sibelius to the unfamiliar listener, though Rubbra achieves a linear coherence that eluded his Finnish predecessor.
Though Rubbra’s basic musical vocabulary is readily accessible, his avoidance of sensational elements or conventional dramatic devices makes it somewhat less appealing to the casual listener; hence, his following has never been large. As the perceptive commentator Wilfred Mellers has described Rubbra’s symphonies, there is “nothing abstruse about their tonality and harmony, which is basically diatonic.” What makes them difficult is that “the continuity of their melodic and polyphonic growth is logical and unremitting. The orchestration shows scarcely any concern for the possibilities of colour, nothing on which the senses can linger and the nerves relax.” Actually, Rubbra’s purely functional, somewhat unimaginative use of the orchestra has at times been identified as a weakness, and there is some truth to this charge, as there is when it is leveled against Brahms. Both composers maintained a sober focus on musical logic such that concern with tone color would seem cosmetic and meretricious.
This traversal of the symphonies on Chandos offers a new generation of listeners the opportunity to discover Rubbra’s remarkable musical world-view, represented here through his Fourth, Tenth, and Eleventh Symphonies, the latter in its first recording. The Symphony No. 4, composed during the years 1940-42, is one of Rubbra’s strongest, with an auspicious beginning that Robert Layton has termed “one of the most beautiful openings not just in Rubbra but in all English music, with a “serenity, a remarkable stillness and an inner repose, free from any kind of artifice.” Solemn and fervent, the first movement has some Elgarian as well as Sibelian moments, with strong stepwise bass lines that suggest an organ-like use of the orchestra. Compared to the later symphonies, the Fourth is almost rhetorical, with a grandeur, especially in the triumphant finale, that is especially “English.”
On the other hand, Rubbra’s Symphony No. 10, composed in 1974, is remarkably economical, comprising just one tripartite movement, of 15 minutes duration, scored for chamber orchestra The work’s form, style, and tone may suggest Howard Hanson’s Sinfonia Sacra (No. 5) to some listeners, although Rubbra’s treatment is far more developmentally active and contrapuntally intricate. Others will hear only Sibelius in its mood of detached contemplation. Rubbra embraced some of the principles of eastern mysticism and, while there is no trace of Asian materials in the composer’s thoroughly English musical language, there is a Buddhist quality to the music’s depersonalized serenity, its lack of contentiousness, its emotional moderation, and its absence of ego. Neither this work nor its successor culminate in cathartic resolutions, but rather arrive at gentle conclusions that seem to whisper, “Well, that’s all for tonight”. Their consistently reflective manner might seem monotonous and boring to more impatient listeners, although I find in them a sufficient variety of motion to hold my attention.
The Eleventh Symphony, also cast in one 15-minute movement, is Rubbra’s last work for full orchestra, composed during 1977-79. Interestingly, this work displays the coloristic possibilities of the orchestral medium with somewhat more variety and imagination than its predecessors, yet without altering the aesthetic character of the music in any significant way. The composer himself described No. 11 as “a culmination of all my symphonies compressed into one movement,” and it is, in many ways, the apotheosis of his symphonic cycle, displaying an effortless application of his unique compositional technique to a warm yet dispassionate spiritual message. Though the Eleventh is presented here in its premier recording, both the Fourth and the Tenth are available in alternative readings: No. 4 in a 1990 performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Norman Del Mar (Lyrita SRCD-202) and No. 10 in a 1976 performance with Hans-Hubert Schonzeler leading the Bournemouth Sinfonietta (Chandos CHAN-6599). All these readings are intelligently and sympathetically conceived and competently executed, while none unites blazing conviction with impeccable contrapuntal balance into a definitive rendition, so obvious preferences are hard to discern. To my ears, the new Hickox/BBC Wales recording of the Tenth is a tad more technically secure than Schonzeler/Bournemouth, but is a bit superficial in addressing the work’s expressive content, with substantive matters rather glossed over, while Schonzeler seems to plumb somewhat deeper. In the Fourth Symphony, Hickox seems again to overlook distinctions and delineations within the polyphonic fabric, as compared with Del Mar/Philharmonia. But, as noted, these differences are very subtle, and I did select the new Hickox/BBC Wales for my 1996 Want List.
For the listener who has yet to discover the music of Rubbra, I would recommend starting with the Symphony No. 5, as its thematic material is more strongly characterized than the others and its expressive content is more readily accessible, while remaining nonetheless a thoroughly representative work of the composer. The Fifth is available in a decent performance led by Schonzeler, this time with the Melbourne Symphony (Chandos CHAN-6576).