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
© Gary Higginson
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
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