Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Music Webmaster
Len Mullenger:

Song of the Soul, Op 78; Four Mediaeval Latin Lyrics, Op 32; Inscape, Op 122; Veni, creator Spiritus, Op 130; Advent Cantata: Natum Maria Virgine, Op 136.
Stephen Varcoe (bar); Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chorus; City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN 9847 56: 21

The music of Edmund Rubbra first became known to record collectors when his Second Violin Sonata, Fifth Symphony and Second Quartet were recorded - the first two on 78s, but soon all three on early LPs. For me, and I think for many others, the impact of Barbirolli's ten-inch LP of the Fifth Symphony was one of those long-remembered musical turning points which forms ones life-long musical taste. Certainly the Barbirolli Fifth is still on my desert island list many many years later. Subsequently came those wonderful Lyrita LPs, conducted by Handley and del Mar, still just available on CD.

And it is as an idiosyncratic symphonist for which Rubbra's admirers have continued to revere him, as Richard Hickox's more recent championship of Rubbra's music for Chandos has continued the focus on the symphonies. So it was not until he coupled the choral ninth symphony with Rubbra's short choral setting of The Morning Watch (Chandos CHAN 9441) were we reminded that Rubbra was as much a choral composer as an orchestral one.

Now, here we have a splendid survey of Rubbra's later choral music, including three world premiere recordings; Song of the Soul, Veni, creator Spiritus and Natum Maria Virgine. Long-standing in the catalogue has been the Virgin Classics version of Rubbra's Four Mediaeval Lyrics with David Wilson Johnson's fine reading in a pioneering recording conducted by Hans-Hubert-Schönzeler (VC7 90752-2 now on EMI CDM5 66936-2). Enjoyable as that version was, in many ways this new account has the edge, for the delightful way Stephen Varcoe seems to identify with the music, grabbing our attention with the vigour and brilliance of his first song, his more focussed baritone giving the music an urgency and edge, in the Chandos recording's natural acoustic. And, of course, Hickox is now soaked in the Rubbra idiom, and directs compelling and vibrant performances in which he clearly believes.

The suite of delightful choral settings of Gerard Manley Hopkins with accompaniment for strings and harp, for which Rubbra borrowed from Hopkins his title Inscape, was first recorded by Decca many years ago, on a cherishable LP (SXL 6281) with the Ambrosian Singers and the Jacques Orchestra, in which the Rubbra shared the disc with music by Robert Still. No one who is fortunate to have that recording will want to dispose of it, but for day to day purposes it is now succeeded by Hickox's sensitively sprung view of Rubbra, composer and performers responding to the felicities of some of Hopkins's best-know texts, including 'Pied Beauty' and 'God's Grandeur'. Hickox and his singers really capture the fervour and intensity of the words and Rubbra's settings: the rhythmic drive underlying the paean of praise at the end of 'Pied beauty', the intensity of the meditation 'The Lantern out of doors', the dancing interplay of strings and voices in 'Spring', the latter so reminiscent of earlier Tippett.

For most Rubbra lovers, though, it is the three newly recorded pieces which are surely going to be the focus of attention, and here we have at least two really significant additions to the Rubbra discography. Song of the Soul is a fervent setting of a well-known poem from St John of the Cross translated by Roy Campbell, depicting the flame of religious love in terms of human passion, and Rubbra's setting is given a suitably impassioned reading by Hickox's choir. This music occasionally bring Rubbra's teacher Gustav Holst to mind, such as at "Oh lamps of fiery blaze", and while the orchestra is by no means technicolour, Rubbra's characteristic textures are all the more effective for the occasional flash of colour like a Byzantine jewel, bringing to mind those words set by Holst "my soul is nought by fire and ice".

The motet Veni creator Spiritus, setting very familiar Latin words, was written for a Promenade Concert in 1966, when it was conducted by the composer Malcolm Arnold. Set for mixed chorus and brass, this is a work to make a glorious sound in a big resonant acoustic, and possibly the Blackheath Concert Halls, where this was recorded in August 1999, is not the location to make the most of this aspect of such music. Nevertheless, this is nicely done.

Also from the 1960s, comes the eleven-minute Advent cantata Natum Maria Virgine, for baritone, chorus and chamber orchestra, first performed in May 1968. It may only run 11minutes, but it has the aura of a big piece. The four movements play continuously, building to a climax for baritone and orchestra with the third - 'Acrostic Hymn' - sung in Latin, while the rest of the text is in English. Here Adrian Yardley, in his excellent notes, points out that each verse begins with successive letters of the alphabet from A to G, the music following suit, the rising pitch underlining the growth towards the climax underlined by bells. The final Chorale gives the chorus a sustained opportunity for resounding singing, bring a rewarding little work to an optimistic, indeed triumphal conclusion, though in typical style Rubbra cuts off the peroration lest it become too overblown.

There is only one slight blemish on an otherwise exemplary disc: its rather short playing time, in a world where CD programmes are regularly over 70 minutes. Other similar works by Rubbra are all comparatively short and one more could easily have been accommodated. However, it is a great pity that Rubbra's short choral works no longer appear on local choral society programmes, and I hope this fine recording may encourage choirmasters as well as a wider audience to investigate some lovely music.


Comparative recording: Martyn Hill (tenor), David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers : - The UK's Biggest Video Store

Concert and Show tickets


Musicians accessories

Click here to visit

Return to Index