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Symphony No. 5 (1947), Symphony No. 8 Teilhard de Chardin (1968), Ode to the Queen (1953) Three Songs for Medium Voice and Orchestra - première recording Susan Bickley (soprano) BBC Welsh SO/Richard Hickox    CHANDOS CHAN 9714 [ 64.30]

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Review by Rob Barnett:-

Symphony No. 8 is an enigmatic work of low emphasis and strong but not obvious profile. From that point of view you can compare it with Vaughan Williams 9. It made little impression on me when I first heard it in a 1970s broadcast conducted by Christopher Adey. It is one of those Rubbra works to reserve for later in the listening process at least if your expectations are fixed on more dramatic qualities. There is dense drama (8.10 at I) but rarely of any assertive climactic type.

No. 8 is dedicated to the French Christian philosopher and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) whose optimistic bridging of science and religion attracted the composer. It is this optimism that Rubbra set about capturing. The central movement is one of Rubbra's chatteringly insistent round dances (allegretto con brio). Time clearly plays a part in the Lento and its passing is heard in the shuddering and ticking of the strings (2.00 and 3.30). Rather like the tenth symphony this is a work of subtle profile yielding pleasure only through the closest attention. A newer simplicity enters the score for the first time at 4.28 where a long slow string theme raises its head and surveys the world in wonder - a spirit maintained to the close of the symphony.

Ode to the Queen is a cycle of three songs (becoming increasingly shorter: 6.38, 4.30, 1.51) written for Coronation year. Its brusquely dramatic (almost Spanish - de Falla Three Cornered Hat) sounds inhabit a similar world to Vaughan Williams' Tudor Portraits and parts of Hodie. It is also very much in step with the joyous uproar of Finzi's Saint Cecilia Ode. Susan Bickley is in full, rather operatic, voice and only some of the words emerge clearly. After the rough crashing and celebration of the first song Fair as unshaded light suits Ms Bickley's voice very well and she controls volume with sensitivity to words and melodic line. The final spark of a song growls and sings in a (for Rubbra) typical dance of the celestial spirits.

Symphony No. 5 is easily his best known work having been recorded on 78 by Barbirolli with the Hallé back in the 1950s and having been reissued several times since then and still being available on EMI. It is as sombre as anything in its two predecessors though Rubbra maintains (in his programme note) that the gap of six years that separate this from No 4 'was sufficient to obliterate the previous symphonic period'. Grand universal dances wheel and stagger counterpointed by guttural horns and hoarse brass (perhaps influenced by William Alwyn). The second movement is almost neo-classical in its lightly bubbling allegro having something in common with the Sibelius 3rd symphony especially in the woodwind parts. The following grave is ruminative and subdued - a quality that closes the finale which is otherwise as light-footed and uncomplicatedly optimistic as the second movement. Some of the more tangily exuberant moments have a hint of the symphonic Vaughan Williams about them.

Despite its popularity this work has always struck me as one of unresolved clashes of character - a symphonic suite rather than a work of symphonic emotional logic. This however is a good performance and one that in aural terms easily challenges the Schönzeler and Barbirolli, the latter of which emphasises the lighter elements at the expense of symphonic gravity. © Rob Barnett

Some General Comments from Gary Higginson

When I was wondering about how this complete set of Rubbra Symphonies would span out I began to contemplate the couplings. Never did I expect to hear a performance of the Ode to the Queen. In over 25 years of listening out for performances of Rubbra's works on the radio and in performance, this is the first time I have heard of the work being done anywhere. All the more credit to the Chandos team for allowing us to meet it after 46 years of silence.

The Ode was written for Coronation week 1953 and first performed by Anne Wood and the BBCSO under Sargent and is contemporary with the 6th Symphony. It is a setting of three rather declamatory poems by Crashaw, Davenant and Thomas Campion. It contains some wonderfully lyrical writing and its neglect is unaccountable except that the score was not performed until 1977, and then with only piano reduction. By then Rubbra's star had waned very low. The opening is like no other Rubbra work I know. It is full of blazing fanfare figures and colours which are unique in Rubbra, almost Italian. The second song is immeasurably beautiful with a simple melody over a syncopated, throbbing accompaniment. This is music you will want to hear again. The last movement reminds me of the faster songs from the Five Spenser Sonnets Op. 42 and Amoretti Op. 43 (written in the mid-1930s). It is short and whilst not that convincing in itself acts a happy foil to the other two. Susan Bickley's beautifully expressive voice is absolutely ideal.

Rubbra returned to writing symphonies after over 12 years of working on other things. The 8th symphony had its first performance on 5 August 1971 and it is that performance which Intaglio released in 1992 (coupled with a Boult performance of the 6th Symphony). Devoted Rubbran's should have this CD but for the rest I would suggest that despite some thoughtful moments they would be best listening to the Lyrita recording of 1979. The composer himself was present at the sessions and was thrilled.

The 8th Symphony suffered complete neglect after the first performance and is never heard in concert. This is a travesty because it is a wonderful work. A very spiritual piece with a searingly gloriously ending. It was written in homage to the great Roman Catholic thinker, Teilhard de Chardin and marks the beginning of late Rubbran style, which culminates in the 9th Symphony and the 4th Quartet.

The composer's normal approach to any work was to sit at the piano and work away producing possibly fifty bars of opening material and then leaving them for some while. He would return some while later and compose by improvising and singing his way through a movement. With the 8th symphony he took a different approach beginning in full score and therefore deliberately thinking in terms, not of line but of colour. "hence the tonal centres of each of the three movements have their origin in the widely spaced held chord of C-G-C with which the symphony opens." (The Listener 31 December 1970)

My first impression was that Hickox's speeds are much faster than Del Mar's, certainly this is true in the first movement where he is thirty seconds quicker. This has the advantage of allowing us to hear the multifarious cross-rhythms enhanced by a superb recording and enables us to get a better view of the overall form of the movement. Again in the second movement there seems to be more forward propulsion yet Del Mar is marginally faster. Hickox is less full of mystery than del Mar but brings out the tension and excitement of the music more than I have heard before. My later impression was that both conductors are almost always faster than the composer's metronome markings and each knock five minutes off the time of the Intaglio performance, which is more true to the composer's markings. I was particularly reminded here of what a wonderful orchestrator Rubbra was, a facet of his art often derided.

As for the 5th Symphony I have always felt this to be Rubbra's lightest symphony even his happiest one. Schönzeler's affectionate reading has the drawback of some poor intonation from the Melbourne SO strings who may not have played Rubbra before. Hickox produces the best performance I have heard of this work my only disappointment being that he is a little lethargic compared with Schönzeler at the important, and one must say, unusual marking for Rubbra, of Allegro Energico at letter H in the first movement. This is a powerful moment, which slightly flops here. Nevertheless this symphony brings the cycle to a superb conclusion.

So, how can we view this cycle of Rubbra's symphonies now it is complete? Five CDs recorded over a period of four and a half years. Well mostly they are excellent and are often magnificent with a particular high point for me being the 6th and 9th symphonies. The couplings too have been interesting, offering the Sinfonia Concertante Op. 38, A Tribute Op. 56, The Morning Watch Op. 55. Some CDs have only one Symphony some have two or three, in a rather arbitrary manner. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales are absolute stars. These scores can be demanding and the strings especially are never less than superb. Richard Hickox has always had a rapport with Rubbra's music, recording two Masses back in 1975, and he has been a perfect interpreter. So what next can we hope for? The Rubbra centenary falls in 2001. I wonder if Chandos will look at some of the works for chorus and orchestra for example Song of the Soul Op. 78 and the Festival Te Deum Op. 74, but there are many others languishing on the publishers shelves. I wonder too if the Finzi Singers could be persuaded to give us a CD of Rubbra's a cappella works. We could also do with a new recording of the Piano Concerto and a premiere recording of the earlier Piano Concerto Op. 30.

But we must be very grateful to all concerned for the lavish and beautiful way that this series has been designed and performed not forgetting the composer's son, Adrian Yardley, the project advisor whose own sleeve notes have greatly enhanced my understanding of the works and of the man who created them.
© Gary Higginson

Comparative versions:

Symphony No 5

Melbourne SO Schönzeler Chandos CHAN 1018;

Symphony No 8

Philharmonia/del Mar Lyrita SRCD 234;

RLPO/Groves Intaglio INCD 7311


Symphony No. 5

BBCNSO/Ridley 1980s.

BBC Welsh SO/Brian Wright 1980s

BBC Scottish SO/Charles Groves 1960s?

Symphony No. 8

BBC Scottish SO/Christopher Adey June 1976

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Groves f.p. 5 Aug 1971


Rob Barnett

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