Review by Rob Barnett:-
The serenity and remorseless tread of Rubbra's wartime setting of Vaughan's
The Morning Watch (a poem which six years previously Bax set for similar
forces) is remarkable. For anyone at all familiar with the Fourth Symphony
the parity of character between the two contemporaneous works is patent.
'Prayer is the world in tune' indeed! This is a work of intoxicating singleness
of purpose. Its placing among the cycle of the symphonies is not simply a
matter of convenience. It has its own undeniable symphonic spirit. Later
to become a master of the compact symphony (see symphonies 10 and 11) this
work is amongst the earliest germinator of that natural flame. Serenity and
exaltation tread with warmth and beneficent confidence through this compact
There is little of Sibelius in this work and more of Bruckner and Brahms
(remember Rubbra's orchestration of the Brahms' Handel Variations once recorded
by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphians) and a trace of Elgar and yet none
of these are ever entirely in focus. Rubbra stands clear and distinctive
above and through the music. Hickox knows this music very well having broadcast
it on Radio 3 with the BBC Singers and BBC Concert Orchestra on 29 November
1981 and I think this shows. If you are looking for a complete work of some
gravity and weight of purpose and yet of 'manageable proportions' this, together
with Symphony No. 11, is the one to try.
Hickox also knows Sinfonia Sacra well. He conducted a studio performance
for Radio 3 and this was broadcast on 29 November 1981. Two of the singers
in that performance also appear in this Chandos version: Della Jones and
Stephen Roberts taking their roles 12 years (almost to the day) after that
studio event. Lynne Dawson's role was taken originally by Catherine Bott.
The work is given a reverential performance in a work that is understated
and intrinsically undramatic in any obvious sense. This work majors not on
the big climactic sequences of Symphonies 4 and 6 but the long lines of the
finale of No. 6 and the far from immediate accessible subtleties of No. 8.
Its sincerity is never once in doubt but, as a work, for me this reeks of
the spirit of the mournful oratorio (its origins were as an oratorio) on
which the Three Choirs have subsisted from its origins. I have no negative
criticisms of the performance which radiates light. However by the side of
the shorter work on this disc Sinfonia Sacra seems positively discursive.
Long works can be succinct. This one has an air of wonder about it but its
spirit seems very personal to Rubbra himself. I have no doubt that this is
my problem not Rubbra's and many people regard this work very highly. As
a performance this work eradicates any need for other companies to consider
a competing version.
Review by Hubert Culot:-
I have long been waiting for a recording of Rubbra's ninth symphony. I will
not therefore conceal my enthusiasm for the present release which is part
of the Chandos Rubbra cycle. As is often the case with choral symphonies
purists will possibly argue that, no matter how satisfying, the structure
of the piece it is by nature non-symphonic. Anyway since Mahler, the concept
of the multi-movement choral-orchestral symphony has come to be more readily
accepted. After all, a symphony (or any piece of music) is what the composer
makes of it. However it goes without saying that the overall structure of
the ninth symphony is looser than, say, that of the masterly Sinfonia
da Camera (No. 10) Op. 145 but Rubbra nevertheless pruned down his material
to ensure a more tightly organised structure.
The symphony was first sketched as a passion along Bach's lines. Later Rubbra
abandoned the idea, compressed the liturgical text to fit his new symphonic
project and was ready to start afresh having realised that "the formal problem
of the new symphony was a symphonic one: the desired unity could be achieved
only by shaping the textures of symphonic ends..." (Rubbra as quoted by Adrian
Yardley). However the formal design remains roughly the same as that of a
Bach passion, each of the four sections of the symphony ending with a Latin
Formal unity is achieved through the recurrent use of motives and intervals
rather than by a more symphonic development of the thematic material. There
are many impressive moments, such as the opening bars of the symphony suggesting
darkness wide-spread chords) and the terror of darkness (timpani at first,
then pizzicati on low strings). The climaxes are superbly achieved and really
sound as the point of arrival of what has gone before. The work as a whole
is a very imposing achievement even if at the end one cannot ascertain its
symphonic nature. Again, this is, to my mind, rather futile for what really
matters is the grandeur of Rubbra's vision and the conviction he put in realising
it. No wonder that he considered his ninth symphony as one of his finest
The Morning Watch Op. 55 (1946) is a beautifully impressive setting
of Henry Vaughan's poem which incidentally Daniel Jones also set in his cantata
The Country beyond the Stars. (In this respect it may be interesting to compare
both settings.) The work opens with a weighty orchestral introduction leading
to the majestic entry of the chorus with the words "O Joy! Infinite sweetness!"
It then slowly builds up towards an impressive climax which is followed by
an orchestral interlude leading into the, more reflective, second part. The
work ends quietly and meditatively.
This is a fine and welcome release. Everyone concerned plays and sings with
utmost conviction in what I believe to be one of Rubbra's greatest pieces.
The soloists are very fine and the choir sings bravely throughout and all
receive ardent support from the orchestra. Again Richard Hickox proves his
deep sympathy for this music and this Rubbra cycle is likely to be another
supreme achievement on Chandos' part. Highly recommended.
The Morning Watch
Philharmonia Singers BBC Scottish SO / Charles Groves 1960s?
BBC Singers BBC Concert Orchestra / Hickox 29 Nov 1981
Bowen, Proctor, Luxon, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir Royal Liverpool
Philharmonic Orchestra / Charles Groves f.p. 1973
Kennard, Walker, Duplessis, BBC Singers BBC Choral Society BBC Concert Orchestra
Charles Groves 30 Apr 1980
Bott, Jones, Robert, BBC Singers BBC Concert Orchestra / Hickox 29 Nov 1981