> Rubbra String Quartets [GH]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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String Quartet No 2 in E flat major Op. 73; (1951) Lyric Movement for String Quartet and Piano Op. 24; (1929 rev. 1946) Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn ‘O Quando in Cruce’ for two violas Op. 117a; (1962) String Quartet No 4 Op. 150 (1977)
Dante Quartet with Michael Dussek piano and Judith Busbridge and Krysia Osostowicz violas
Recorded at Maltings Snape May 2001
DUTTON CDLX 7114 [59.13]

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The Rubbra Centenary celebrations march on and Dutton are doing all of us a grand service. This is now the fourth disc in their series devoted to Rubbra’s chamber music. The series started in autumn 1999 with the Violin Sonatas (CDLX 7101) played by Krysia Osostowicz, revealed here as a marvellous viola player. Also featured is Michael Dussek; he accompanied Osostowicz on that first disc and has gone on to record Rubbra’s complete piano music (CDLX 7112). They were also responsible for performances of the Piano Trios on the remaining disc (CDLX 7106).

In the ‘Dante Quartet’, a group of young professionals, Dutton has found a group who are quickly in tune with the unique requirements of this often austere composer. Rubbra, above all other English 20th Century composers, needs performers who are sympathetic and in tune with his language. The artists must have patience to live with the music and feel its often slow tempi naturally. These players do just that.

I would like to think that another volume of chamber music will emerge next year to give us the remaining two quartets and possibly the original version, for solo viola, of the ‘Meditations on a Byzantine Hymn’. It would be puzzling if such a disc did not appear, especially as there was space on this one for certainly one other work. However at mid-price and with Dutton's illustrious record in the field of British chamber music I must not be ungenerous.

I had decided not to compare the quartet performances with the complete cycle by the Sterling Quartet on Conifer (75605 51260 2). Officially that set, like the rest of the Conifers, is no longer available since the demise of the company 2 years ago, however I have it on good advice that "good" record shops may well still have copies of it in stock or may still be able to get it for you. For that reason I changed my mind and have been referring to the Conifer recordings along the way.

In the case of the 2nd Quartet we also have the recording made by the ‘English Quartet’ on Tremula (TREM 102-2) this makes a good comparison because it throws up the problem of tempo in Rubbra. On one occasion, the composer moaned to me "everyone takes my music far too fast". He was almost 80 at the time and one's internal clock has slowed considerably by then. I have taken this in the way it was meant and listened to performances of his works where he was present or even performing, and indeed they are much slower than modern ones. This does not however prove that the new generation have got it wrong or have misunderstood Rubbra’s markings. When I first heard the Dante Quartet in the first movement of No. 2 I realized that I had grasped the structure better than ever before. I felt the same about the 1st movement of the 4th quartet. I then compared timings. The English quartet takes exactly 10 minutes over it. It is a beautiful and leisurely affair emphasizing the dark moments. The Dante take an overview and shape the form clearly. Both have their place but the newcomer at only 8 mins 35 secs has taught me something new.

The famous Scherzo polymetrico is a virtuoso display of cross-rhythms. It is often notated in differing time signatures simultaneously and could become a headlong gallop towards the final Presto bars. The Dante and the English are spot on with the metronome marking of crotchet=144, but the English Quartet manage to phrase more beautifully and are more expressive. Quite a feat at this speed.

The ‘Cavatina’ next, is again a faster performance than the others but it breaths and flows naturally. The 4th movement is again faster but expressive.

The 4th Quartet's 1st movement, as I said, gave me a much better sense of the form. When I first heard the work, a radio broadcast by the Dartington quartet, it so seemed not to hang together that I wrote to the composer. He answered on October 30th 1982, commenting, "Owing to the nature of the first movement in this case I felt a lively coda was necessary, and this took the place of a Scherzo. This, in turn needed a reflective movement to follow." There is no doubt that even if you play the right notes and the right dynamics you still do not have a satisfying performance. The Sterlings have not grasped the form and they seem to get lost in it, but the Dantes do and the movement makes total sense - for this listener anyway.

Sadly I cannot be so positive about their 2nd movement, but it is not the Dante's fault. The great and wonderful climax to this quartet is the closing minute, a grand and noble ending of power and dignity with strong tremolando scale passages in the viola and cello whilst the first violin soars above. This is a little spoiled here by the recording. which becomes rather harsh and unbalanced. This congested effect is disappointing at this point in this wonderful moment. I hear the same problem at the climactic moments in the ‘Lyric Movement’. This is the premiere recording of this work, which begins not unlike the 1st piano trio Op 68, with its rolling triplets. It has a little more of the English pastoral school about it but, as ever with Rubbra, it is a free fantasy on its opening melodies.

There are a number of works by Rubbra called ‘Meditation’ as for example the recently released ‘Meditation’ for Organ Op. 79. It is normally a spiritual improvisation around a given idea; a gradual metamorphosis of it carrying you on a journey where sometimes time seems to evaporate. The 11th Symphony has this particular quality. Here Rubbra takes a plainchant and decorates it with fifteen brief meditations taking little more than ten minutes. Following it with the score of the original version for viola solo is a fascinating experience. Seeing into the composer’s workshop as it were, on notes how he adds a counterpoint, which emerges from inside the melody, over and under it and sometimes colours it with pizzicato or tremolandi.

The booklet notes are fascinatingly written by a Rubbra pupil, the composer John Pickard. There is also a photo of the composer at the piano and photos of each of the performers.

An excellent disc which, with just a few noted reservations, I can very much recommend.

Gary Higginson

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