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Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
String Quartet No. 1 Op. 35 (1933/1946)
String Quartet No. 3 Op. 112 (1964)
Improvisation for Unaccompanied cello Op. 124 (1967)
Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 60 (1946)
Dante Quartet
Pierre Doumerge (cello) and Michael Dussek, (piano)
Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, London, April 2002


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Dutton Labs and producer Mike Purton are continuing to do wonderful things on behalf of the music of Edmund Rubbra, this being their fifth disc of his chamber music. Last year’s disc which included the 2nd and 4th quartets was very close to being voted as chamber music record of the year. I had a few reservations about the Dante Quartet then but I have none this time. The only competition to them, if the recording can still be found, is the Sterling Quartet on Conifer (75605 51260 2). There is little wrong with the Sterling’s version but a few comparisons need to be made. The acoustic of St. Martin’s Church, East Woodhay is perfect for vocal music but makes the Sterlings sound like a string orchestra lacking chamber music type intimacy. Secondly the recording comes across as too bright - even brittle - in the high 1st Violin register, especially in the 1st quartet. The Henry Wood Hall, as captured here, glows with the feeling of a Wigmore Hall performance and the recorded sound is more pleasant. As to the performances there is nothing to choose between them with regard to the 3rd quartet except that the Sterling quartet linger longer over the moving Adagio movement which I like. With the 1st quartet the new-comer is preferable particularly in the middle movement which they move on more interestingly and consequently the overall length of the work is one minute shorter.

The first quartet is a little austere as was typical of the composer in the ’30s, it is unusual in that Rubbra extensively revised it (the 2nd symphony, a contemporary piece also underwent a substantial revision) thirteen years after it first performance. It is dedicated to Vaughan Williams whose "persistent interest in the material led to the present revisions and additions". But I wrote in my score when I looked through the quartet with the composer in the early ’80s, "spot the Ravellian influences" the composer’s own words. Incidentally VW himself was a lover of Ravel’s music having wanted to study with him when young. If there is a touch of Ravel it can only be found in the 1st movement with its chromaticisms; the finale (recomposed in 1946) is typical Rubbra, in compound time, cross-rhythms, modal, intricate and a reminder of the demonic Scherzo of the 2nd Symphony of 1937, revised in 1950.

The 3rd Quartet as John Pickard wisely says in the excellent and extensive booklet notes is not only a very fine work but also one of Rubbra’s best. Each movement is connected by a single held note and the Allegro Leggiero which ends what was up to that point a contemplative work, is one of the most exciting and boisterous of all Rubbra allegros.

In addition to these works we have two for the cello. In the case of the Cello Sonata we have two alternative versions, Raphael Wallfisch and John York (Marco Polo 8.223718) and Tim Gill and Fali Pavri on Guild (7114) and each has its merits and none is weak. I have to say that I have never heard the sonata in quite the way Pierre Doumenge plays it. Movement 3 is a theme and variations (Rubbra often ended a work with a theme and variations e.g. 3rd Symphony written just a few years before the sonata) and he plays every note of the theme as if it were a jewel, with incredible poise and expression and very slowly. The movement is so romantic and deeply felt that he adds four minutes to its length! Rubbra once commented to me, and I have written so before, that he felt that "everyone plays my music too quickly", so Doumenge may be on the right lines. He adds over a minute onto the Andante moderato 1st movement also. To a certain extent the form of the movement and flow is lost at the slower speed, but he plays with such feeling. Ralph Scott Grover in his book on Rubbra (Scolar Press 1993) comments that it is "one of Rubbra’s most expressive works", and can be thought of as a cousin of the 1st Quartet having been "written in the year that the quartet was revised in". It was written for William Pleeth, a very passionate player, and his wife Margaret. I once heard Rohan de Saram play the work at the Holywell Music Room (why hasn’t he recorded it) and his approach was similar. John York and Michael Dussek both accompany wonderfully and so I can only advise that if possible the reader purchases both versions, as they are so different. Or if you want a compromise then go for Tim Gill whose playing of the middle movement is beautifully fleet of foot.

The ‘Improvisation’ was also recorded by Gill (on ASV DCA 1036). Here he adopts a very matter-of-fact approach treating it as a real improvisation casting it away in less than five minutes. We do gain a sense of the architecture but he is really a little flippant. Doumenge is very expressive, and takes his time, over six minutes. In truth this is not strong Rubbra, more like a chipping from the master’s workshop but it comes off well under Doumenge and shows itself to have some emotional power.

So to sum up although these four works have all been recorded before, these performances rank at a very high level and the disc, especially at medium price is a must for lovers of twentieth century British music.

Gary Higginson

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