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Symphony No. 3 (1939) Symphony No. 7 (1956) BBC Welsh SO/Richard Hickox  CHANDOS CHAN 9634 [70.41]

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Review by Rob Barnett:-

Symphony No. 3's tip-toeing Moderato is in wholly Sibelian thrall so far as the loving woodwind and string music is concerned. The reference works are Sibelius 6 and 3 (in that order!). The coaxing first movement has the same 'lie of the land' as an English folk song without evoking any particular song. The work was much loved by Bernard Herrmann who conducted it several times (anyone got a tape?). This is extremely fine music (typical of the first four symphonies) with its sadly calling brass, slow motion swell and grand melodies in constant interplaying motion. The second movement is light with a distorted reflection of Beethoven 5's 'fate' motto in its woodwind stabs. It becomes increasingly oppressive and troubled. The cool strings remind me of Herrmann's film music in its wispy regret and valse triste character. The symphonic momentum however is not lost, stepping, as it does, to a steady bass-line pulse. The finale is Brahmsian and serious with some of the mutedly angry hum of the Soliloquy for cello and orchestra. In summary: a work of warm linearity ending in a positively Stokowskian glow like one of Stokie's Bach organ orchestrations.

The Seventh was a Feeney Trust commission and was premiered by the City of Birmingham SO conducted by composer-Conductor Andrzej Panufnik on 1 October 1957 (1956/57 season). The Feeney commissions for this and the preceding season were also palpable hits with Bliss's John Blow Meditations (probably Bliss's strongest work) and Tippett's Piano Concerto. The horn theme adumbrates contours like those in the trumpet theme launching Franz Schmidt's Fourth Symphony. There are some surprising tributaries here: at 3.30 Tchaik 4 and balletic moments. Hickox is wondrously effective and for me holds the door wide open onto the clear romantic sympathies which in the Boult recording (Lyrita) remained under-played. I never expected such a Tchaikovskian outpouring.

The second of the three movements has a ripely pastoral panache mirroring Vaughan Williams and Nielsen. There is some most uncharacteristic work for the tambourine and a sense of dangerous fantasy and the slow rumba of the harp and cor anglais a Latino sway. The Waltonian bubbling and effervescence of the scherzo is one of the most brilliant movements in all the Rubbra cycle. It is played to the spectacular hilt by Hickox and the BBC Welsh SO.

The finale is a Passacaglia and Fugue with a lento of momentous tread and span, whirring high strings, an iridescent magic and the work emerges, as a direct result of this performance, as one of the strongest of the Rubbra symphonies. I had to rethink my attitude to this symphony because of this Chandos disc.


Rob Barnett

Review by Hubert Culot:-

While composing his first four symphonies Rubbra approached symphonic writing from various points of view but with an evident unique target, i.e. how to achieve clarity while adhering to his highly individual symphonic writing. The ultimate result of this quest may well be the popular Fifth. I will not repeat my earlier comments on Rubbra's Third Symphony (British Music Society News 49 March 1991). Suffice it to say that Rubbra managed to get some steps further towards simplicity and clarity after the powerful, sometimes untamed energy of the First Symphony and after the colourful exuberance of the fine Second (a favourite of mine) but he had still to solve some formal problems still in evidence in the fourth movement of the Third which is a set a variations capped by a fugue. The fugue actually seems a bit contrived because the variations do not have the cumulative effect and do not push-up the tension so that the fugue is experienced as the only to release this tension. In this respect Rubbra is completely successful in the last movement of the Seventh Symphony. A Feeney Trust commission the Symphony No. 7 in C Op. 88 was completed and first performed in 1957. It is in three movements of fairly equal length, the second being a long Scherzo of great colour, intensity and energy. The last movement is a large-scale Passacaglia capped by yet another fugue. However Rubbra achieves here the cumulative impact of the variations (though in a quite different way than in the Third) which are continuous and reach the fugue almost effortlessly. This movement may well be one of the greatest single structures achieved by Rubbra and his Seventh Symphony is certainly one of the peaks of the whole series.

This penultimate release in Chandos' Rubbra cycle is very fine on all counts and confirms Hickox's obvious sympathy with the music. As in the previous releases in this cycle the recorded sound is warm though it may at times slightly obscure Rubbra's complex but totally controlled polyphonic writing.

Hubert Culot

Review by Gary Higginson:-

The 7th received its premiere recording in 1969 by Lyrita (SRCD 235) with Sir Adrian Boult and the LPO. I have always considered this unsurpassable. The 3rd (coupled with the 4th) was released in 1990 conducted by Norman del Mar with the Philharmonia (SRCD 202). To my mind although each movement is in itself perfectly conceived I have always regarded the 3rd as the weakest of the 11 as an overall work. The Finale, a theme and 7 variations with a closing Fugue has often seemed rather bitty and the triumphant ending rather forced and sudden. In truth though apart from Del Mar, the only other conductor I have heard tackle this work in recent times is Harry Newstone in a BBC recording made in 1988 curiously enough on the same day that Lyrita were also recording the work with the RPO. Hickox has a superb team at Chandos and the orchestra (BBC National Orchestra of Wales) is now totally familiar with the Rubbra language and with the Hickox approach. I can only recommend that members have both versions of each symphony in their collection but here are a few observations into interpretation.

The 7th has three movements 1. Lento - Allegro 2. Vivace e leggiero 3. Lento (Passacaglia and Fugue) Movement 1. Sometimes Hickox seems a little ponderous but he does bring out some of the beautiful orchestral detail. He is almost one minute slower than Boult. Movement 2 - the scherzo needs to make a strong contrast with its unbuttoned, bouncing compound rhythms and its wild and brassy orchestration. In the 30 years between the two recordings orchestral virtuosity has risen considerably and it shows here. The orchestra for Hickox are just that little more on top of the kaleidoscope of colours and rhythms than the LPO for Boult. Yet Tempo 1 does seem here, to my taste, to be too variable a tempo on its returns. The Tempo commodo (at just after Fig 47) is surely too much akin to the Tempo 1, and the final Tempo 1 (Fig 60 to the end) is very fast and almost out of control. Movement 3. Hickox produces some wonderfully expressive and very detailed playing with dynamic nuances not easily audible in the Boult. The Fugue is considerably faster. This brings out the typically Rubbran cross rhythms and figures delightfully. Rubbra's suggested overall length is 39 minutes, both Boult and Hickox take just less than 35 minutes.

Hickox's performance of the 3rd Symphony benefits from being a much broader affair than that of Del Mar on Lyrita. This is particularly significant in the magnificent slow movement which is over a minute and a half longer. This is the most wonderful performance of this movement I have ever heard and is full of cataclysmic grief and portent. However in the first movement Hickox does I feel, make a serious misjudgement soon after Figure 13 when Rubbra marks Molto Allargardo before the reprise of the first subject. Here Hickox in the interest of holding the tension up, rides rough-shod through the passage and therefore the effect of the reprise is lost. Other clear metronome markings are often overlooked and the effect can be rather breathless. Then we have the problem of Variation 7 in the Finale. How carefully should we take in Rubbra's metronome markings anyway? This variation is 1 in the miniature score 1 marked crotchet = 44 - very slow indeed. Both conductors go at minim = 44.1 Is there a printing error somewhere? Perhaps this accounts for my sense of an unfulfilled ending as we are quickly into the Fugue at half the length of time the composer imagined. Rubbra once said to me after a performance of a quartet, that everyone took his music too quickly. I have sometimes wondered if this is simply not an old man reflecting years after the composition of a work whose inner clock as it were has slowed down, but on considering the markings he wrote as a young man I find that his disappointment is not without cause. Is no conductor confident to bring off his music at the correct tempo no matter how slow? (also see my review of Rubbra's choral works in BMS News June 98 below)

Both recordings are quite superb. Sometimes, as in the Intermezzo, Lyrita have more orchestral detail, at other times, as in the slow movement, the Chandos team have a deeper understanding of the music. The wonderful thing is that we compare and contrast these performances when at one time one could hardly hear the works at all.

Gary Higginson


Symphony No. 3

BBC Northern SO/John Hopkins 1960s

RPO/Hary Newstone 12 Feb 1988

BBC Scottish SO/Steuart Bedford 22 December 1981

BBC Northern SO/Malcolm Arnold 25 Sept 1967

Symphony No. 7

City of Birmingham SO/Andrzej Panufnik 8 Oct 1957

EDMUND RUBBRA Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis Op. 65 (1947); Tenebrae Nocturnes Op. 72 (1951/1961); Salutation Op. 82 (1953); Missa In Honorem Sancti Dominici Op. 66 (1948); Festival Gloria Op. 94 (1956). Gloria Dei Patris Elizabeth C. Patterson. James Jordan (organ). Guild GDCD024

What a joy! At last a CD entirely devoted to Rubbra's choral music, and on the whole I can say that it is worth the wait. There are 49 published choral works of Rubbra and so few of them are generally known. The Mag and Nunc and the Mass (being in most cathedral choirs' repertoire) are available in excellent performances already from Choir of Gonville and Caius/Geoffrey Webber (ASV DCA 881), with works by Patrick Hadley. Salutation has been recorded on at least 3 other occasions to my knowledge. It forms part of A Garland for the Queen commissioned for the Queen's Coronation with works by Ireland, Vaughan Williams, Bliss and others. These performances hold their own despite a few anomalies and this disc adds two other works which have not been recorded before, although they have been broadcast in recent years by the BBC Singers.

The Mass is the only slightly problematical performance and I find myself wishing that Richard Hickox 1975 performance on RCA (LP version only, no longer available) with the St. Margaret's Singers was available on CD as, for various reasons I still regard it as definitive. I can remember, by a happy accident, speaking with the composer over the telephone on the day after the Mass (and other church music) had been recorded (6 December 1975). He had been present and was thrilled with the whole enterprise, saying that the performances were exactly as he had wanted.

It is interesting looking at the score, and hearing Hickox's performance to realise that every tempo marking is followed and very expressive nuance is heard, as Rubbra had marked them. Of course there is room for re-interpretation but there are some aspects of this new performance of the Mass which seem to be almost wilfully eccentric and which affect the music's flow. In the Gloria, Rubbra marks the Laudamus te section to be í=104, much faster than the opening bars, GDP (Gloria dei Patris) actually goes slower at í=66. This does give a beautiful, ethereal effect but when at the Qui tollis Rubbra marks ï=72 the effect here is of getting faster not slower and the beauty of the passage is almost lost. Later, the Allegro at the A-men comes out much slower than marked at í=54 instead of the composer's marking of í=88.

In the Benedictus Rubbra marks the pulse at à=60, GDP set off at à=76 then speed up even more for the Hosanna when surely at least a sustaining of the tempo would have been more appropriate. Rubbra once told me that he felt that most conductors took his music at too fast a tempo. I wondered if this was simply an old man taking a more leisurely look at his music which is often very slow anyway, but on consulting many tempo markings I find that he was quite correct.

Throughout the Mass, Rubbra's markings are multifarious and specific with many ralls and rits, GDP quite often ignore these. Obviously the decision and interpretation was deliberately reached and it should be said that, as a performance, it all works effectively, as if they have performed the work often in the course of an act of worship, which Rubbra would have been delighted about.

The other major work here is the Tenebrae Nocturnes for Holy Thursday. The first set was written for the 75th birthday of Charles Kennedy Scott in the early 50s. In responding to a commission in 1961 Rubbra set another group of three nocturnes for the Tilford Bach Choir (these are by far the hardest set) and a central group of three were written for and dedicated to Alec Robertson a supporter and friend of the composer. Rubbra sensibly clubbed them all together under the earlier opus number. Stylistically there is little noticeable difference although at this time (the early 60s) Rubbra was becoming even more 'mystic' in many ways. The third nocturne seems to inhabit the harmonic world of the eighth symphony, with its greater emphasis on pedal chords. The earlier nocturne has more emphasis on Rubbra's own type of Organum which can be heard also in the Mass.

To sum up then, this American choir have done us a big favour in recording this music so beautifully. They have a fine controlled tone and the balance is superb. The CD is just under an hour in length and being greedy I feel slightly sorry that space could not have been found for one other work, say the 8-part Te Deum Op 115 which would have made a perfect companion piece to the magnificent double choir Festival Gloria which ends this disc. I do so hope that more choirs will look into Rubbra's church music and give it the place in the repertoire it so much deserves.

© Gary Higginson


Rob Barnett

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