Edmund Rubbra was not
a natural concerto composer; he is the
last person you can think of as in any
way interested in virtuosic display
or pyrotechnics for their own sake.
His music is always developed from line
Having said that the
much under-rated Piano Concerto (Op.
85) is a challenging work and the Viola
Concerto (Op. 75) is demanding but not
always technically. The demand and the
challenge lie in the utter musicianship,
passion and commitment needed to bring
Rubbra is an unfortunate
composer in that his music sounds easy
to bring off but behind this façade
is severely challenging in execution
both for the ensemble and for the soloist.
A violinist tackling these works needs
to understand and be familiar with,
even to love, the language and to see
beyond the notes.
In Krysia Osostowicz
we have such an exponent. It helps,
as her biography reminds us in the booklet,
that she has performed and recorded
Rubbra before. Perhaps I could mention
her versions of the violin sonatas (Dutton
CDLX 7101- review),
string Quartets( Dutton CDLX 7114 review)
and some chamber works (CDLX 7106 review).
These discs have quite rightly received
wonderful reviews. We and all who knew
Rubbra and support the promotion of
his still little known works are therefore
extremely fortunate that Naxos has encouraged
her into the recording studio.
Let’s take the works
in turn beginning with the Improvisations.
The score is headed and was dedicated
to the Louisville Symphony Orchestra
of Kentucky in 1956. It was this orchestra
that gave it its only other recording
on LP in 1977 with Sidney Harth on solo
violin. I mention it, not because it’s
a version especially worth looking out
for in a second-hand shop (it is a poor
recording) but because Rubbra himself
wrote the sleeve-notes for his own piece
and the Britten concerto coupled with
it. The work uses material from an earlier
unfinished piece for orchestra and violin
dating back to the 1930s which seems
to be entitled ‘Rhapsody’ Op. 39 although
Malcolm MacDonald in his otherwise excellent
booklet essay fails to specify this.
Rubbra remarks about the unusual opening
"I had always been happy with the
long cadenza (unaccompanied except for
a timpani roll) with which the early
Fantasia (sic) opened and when
the commission came I felt that I could
build upon it with greater assurance."
How I would like to
know more about the experimental Rubbra
of the 1930s but with works withdrawn,
unpublished and unrecorded it is very
difficult. Ralph Scott Grover in his
huge bible on Rubbra (Scolar Press 1993)
quite rightly says on the opening of
this work: "at first sight, the
jagged melodic contour of the material
suggest a tone row, an impression strengthened
by the seven separate pitches with which
the principal theme opens." Rubbra
often used to allude to an early piece
for chorus and orchestra: ‘O Unwithered
eagle void’ Op. 42 no. 2 which remains
unperformed and in manuscript. This
is, apparently a twelve-tone work and
must date from c.1938. How I, and indeed
many others, would love to hear it.
and Yuasa make this piece work and it
beats the earlier recording by a distance.
That said, if any reader can obtain
a copy of the BBC recording dating back
to November 1981 with the little known
violinist Andrew Watkinson and the BBC
Concert Orchestra conducted by Richard
Hickox then listen to it eagerly; it
is passionate and intense and made me
realize for the first time what a fine
composition it is. I can only add that
Chandos really missed a trick not recording
the work with that particular combination
in their Rubbra series about a decade
Op. 50 on Farnaby’s best known keyboard
pieces - all of which are to be found
in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book - was
first recorded by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler
for RCA in 1976. Again Rubbra was asked
to write the sleeve-notes. He reminded
us that his publisher said that "to
offset the cost of engraving and printing
the score of my first symphony in Vienna
it was suggested that I might like to
write a light-weight work which would
be less costly to produce and, at the
same time, have a more popular appeal".
All I can say is ‘those were the days’.
Anyway it is that same score now published
by Lengnick that you can still purchase.
What an attractive piece it is – five
movements for little more than a chamber
orchestra playable by amateurs, with
attractive melodies and harmonies which
sound Elizabethan but, and this is significant,
also sound like Rubbra. ‘His Dreame’
is typical with its occasional somewhat
sudden key changes and the use of false
relation of Rubbra’s harmonies in general.
This is an elegant
performance quite the equal of the Schönzeler.
All tempi are ideal and the recording
allows the piece to speak clearly.
The Violin Concerto
received its premiere recording on Unicorn-Kanchana
by Carl Pini in 1986 (DKP 9056 nla).
I never quite took to that version.
The recording seemed unventilated and
Pini’s tuning was sometimes unconvincing.
Conifer recorded the work in 1994 (CDCF
225 nla review)
with Tasmin Little as the soloist. This
transformed the work for me. I still
find Little excellent but this new version
is certainly its equal. It is however
interesting that of the three versions
it is this new one which has the least
forward momentum the first movement
being an amazing 68 seconds slower than
Little. It should be remembered that
it is, after all marked Allegro.
Pini’s version conducted by David Measham
has much more momentum in this opening
movement, but consequently appears rather
breathless at times being no less than
two minutes faster than Osostowicz.
In fact her other movements are also
considerably slower than the Conifer
or Unicorn versions. The beautiful ‘Poema’
second movement certainly benefits from
long-breathed phrases. Osostowicz is
a minute and a half slower than Pini
who is, anyway, rather unpoetic. In
the finale I prefer the showmanship
of Tasmin Little and Vernon Handley
who really understand Rubbra. The Pini
performance of the finale is quite exciting
and also sometimes ragged but with a
good emphasis on the many, typically
This Naxos issue is
a very welcome release both for its
couplings and for its performances.
This is the second Rubbra CD from Naxos.
You might recall a choral music recording
in 2001 (8.555255
review). Let us hope that
more will come and that the day when
Rubbra’s music is firmly in the repertoire
is not too far away.
see also review
Recording of the Month] and