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Four Last Songs c.1956; Four Poems by Fredegond Shove c.1925; Silent Noon EDMUND RUBBRA
Rosa Mundi Op 2 (1921) The Mystery Op. 4 no. 1 (1922) Orpheus with his lute Op 8 no2 (1923) Rune of Hospitality Op. 15 (1925) A Duan of Barra Op. 20 (1928) Three Psalms Op 61 (1947) Ave Maria Gratia Plena two songs with string quartet, O my deir hert Op.5 (1922) and O Excellent Virgin Princess Op. 77 (1952) Two Sonnets of William Alabaster Op. 87 (1955) with piano and viola. Eight Preludes for solo piano Op. 131 (1966)
Mark Chambers (Counter-tenor) David Mason (Piano) Caractacus String Quartet
Rec Leighton Park School, May 1999

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It is very apt that these two composers should be paired. They were friends and colleagues and had a great respect for each other. Rubbra, whose centenary fells in May 2001, looked to VW for advice in his early days. Indeed Rubbra might have destroyed his 1st Quartet had not VW, to whom it is dedicated, taken a liking to it and suggested to him that the material was worth pursuing. This CD also shows how different they are. VW is a pastoral composer here, even in the darker last songs; Rubbra is the mystic, and the contrapuntist and in the psalms he is even the austere, penitent, - many moods and phases as one would expect from such a wide range of texts.

William Alabaster is a little known member of the so-called 'Metaphysical poets', the 'Duan of Barra' is an Irish Christmas poem by Murdoch Maclean an obscure Scottish writer. 'O My deir hert', in contrast, takes a medieval text. I found myself asking the question 'where has this counter-tenor been all this time' because, and I will say at the outset, he is very impressive indeed. Now I speak as one who knows the Rubbra songs and some of the VW ones very well. Also I trained as a counter-tenor and was a pupil of Rubbra' s. In fact, when it was still in manuscript, I gave the first London performance of 'The Mystery' (Rubbra thought that it might have been the first ever) at the composer's farewell concert at the Guildhall School of Music in May 1974. I have coached others singers in these songs and I can say that these performances are very special. Not only that but Chambers' top notes are unflustered, strong and perfectly judged. For example the second note in the voice part of 'Most excellent Virgin Princess', is a top F, and in the 'Duan of Barra' the vocal part has a leap of a major 6th up to top G, on an awkward vowel sound in the word 'leave'. Again Chambers manages this wonderfully. There is a further top G at the climax on GOD.

The Three Psalms are severe pieces that come off well, just occasionally when the voice goes below the treble clef are we aware of the piano's dominance. No-one will really beat Kathleen Ferrier, to whom they are dedicated, on the recording from the 1949 Edinburgh Festival, a disc worth tracking down, (although at present deleted). Mark Chambers runs her a very close second. I feel, though, that the third psalm here is too fast. Rubbra marks 'risoluto' which Chambers seems to ignore. Rubbra, in fact, back in 1974, marked crotchet=72 on my copy, anyway, after about 16 bars there is a marking of accelerando the effect of which is lost here. On the question of speeds 'The Mystery' (which is unaccompanied) loses its mystery at the speed Chambers chooses. The song is all over in 53 seconds. A more suitably leisurely speed (1 min 13 seconds) is taken by the late Tracey Chadwell on ASV (DCA 1038). Chadwell also recorded 'Rosa Mundi' in a version accompanied by the harp (the piano part is printed in the score but the harp seems very suitable). On this new recording we hear it accompanied by two violins, which was Rubbra's first and original choice. It is a truly unforgettable song which Holst (Rubbra's teacher at the time) was very fond of.

The settings of William Alabaster were last recorded by the late Alfreda Hodgson on LP (Pearl SHE 559). That performance was wonderful, but then so is this. Everything seems just right, tempo, dynamics and most importantly the emotional impact is subtle and beautiful. A good singer can often only be as good and his/her accompanist; here it is the sensitive David Mason.

Mason also contributes to the CD by recording the Eight Preludes Op 131, Rubbra's biggest piano work. These preludes are scattered around between the songs in pairs. This works very well in many ways but having played the CD right through I went back and tracked the preludes to hear them as a group. They are in quite a mixture of styles with a fugue for No 3 and an impressionist water mood for No 2. Number 5 is very demanding in pedalling and hand crossings, and Number 8 is a powerful piece demanding accuracy of double octaves. Number 7 does not quite work here I feel. Rubbra marks 'grazioso' in the score and this seems to be missing in this performance. Back in 1981, Edward Moore made an LP of the complete Rubbra piano works at that time for the composer's 80th birthday. The Preludes received a good reading and it is worth looking out this LP despite poor recorded quality. (Phoenix 1009).

To sum up, this new company based in Reading has produced an excellent recording of very fine English art songs wonderfully performed by a singer who is specialising in this repertoire, who could well go places and be snapped up by a producer before long, for Oberon, I have no doubt. He is wonderfully supported by the sweet-toned Caractacus Quartet and by the experienced and thoughtful David Mason. All texts are given, and the excellent booklet notes are by Keri Dexter. A worthwhile investment.

Gary Higginson

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