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
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.