Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
The Sacred Muse

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A flat, Op. 65* (1948) [7’23"]
Tenebrae First Nocturn Op. 72 (1951): ‘In monte Oliveti’ [2’21"]; ‘Tristis est anima mea’ [3’12"]; ‘Ecce vidimus eum’ [4’14"]
Tenebrae Second Nocturn Op. 72 (1961): ‘Amicus meus’ [2’42"]; ‘Judas mercator pessimus’ [2’22"]; ‘Unus ex discipulis’ [2’31"]
Tenebrae Third Nocturn Op. 72 (1961): ‘Eram quasi agnus innocens’ [3’22"]; ‘Una hora non potuistis’ [2’18"]; ‘Seniores populi’ [2’58"]
Salutation Op. 82 [3’23"]
Missa in Honorem Sancti Dominici Op. 66 (1948) [16’17"]
Festival Gloria Op. 94 (1957) [5’27"]
*James E. Jordan Jr. (organ)
Gloria Dei Cantores/Elizabeth C. Patterson
Recorded in the Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts


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In a recent (19 April 2003) survey of the recordings of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony for BBC Radio Three the critic Piers Burton-Page lamented that not one of the current versions in the catalogue was played by a non-British orchestra. How refreshing, therefore, to find the music of Edmund Rubbra, sadly an even less "exportable" British composer, it would seem, being taken up, and to such good effect, by an American choir.

Gloria Dei Cantores is a 44-strong mixed choir based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts which specialises in liturgical music. The documentation accompanying this CD does not give the date of the recording but I note that the disc was published in 1997. The venue was the Mechanics Hall in Massachusetts’ second city, Worcester, which possesses a fine, sonorous organ and excellent acoustics.

Since this recording was first issued fierce competition has arrived in the shape of an excellent Rubbra CD from Naxos issued to mark his centenary. This is by the all-male choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge and it contains all the music included in the GDC programme with the exception of Salutation and the Festival Gloria. St. John’s also include another fine and substantial work in the shape of the Missa Cantuariensis. However, as I hope to make clear, these apparently rival CDs tend to complement each other.

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are probably Rubbra’s best known liturgical works for they are in the repertoire of most English cathedral choirs, and rightly so. The ‘Mag.’ is strong and confident with an arresting organ part (well realised here) while the ‘Nunc’ is characterised by tranquil loveliness. Both share a common, grand ‘Gloria’. The performances here are wholly successful. The ‘Mag.’ has a degree more spaciousness than it receives from the St. John’s choir (who take a full minute less). I rather like the extra breadth. On the other hand, some may prefer the slightly greater cutting edge to the St. John’s sound which stems from the use of trebles and male altos (and smaller forces). The organ is an even more potent presence in the GDC recording than is the case on the St. John’s version and, again, I like this.

This may be a good point to say something about the respective recordings. The St. John’s choir are set a bit further back, as is the organ, in a pretty faithful recreation of the acoustic of their chapel. This gives their recording a bit more of a liturgical feel than the GDC recording. The American singers are balanced just that bit more forwardly and, as I said, the organ part "tells" a little more on their disc though as the Op. 65 canticles are the only accompanied item on their programme this may not be a significant factor. Both choirs are accorded excellent sound, albeit the engineers have adopted different approaches.

The nine Tenebrae Nocturns deserve to be far better known. Indeed, I can pay them no higher compliment than to say that they deserve to be as well known as Poulenc’s marvellous Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence. Ten years separate the composition of the first set from the other two sets so I wonder if Rubbra designed them to be sung as a set? The texts are the nine responsories which are sung at Matins on Maundy Thursday (there are similar sets, not set by Rubbra, for Matins on Good Friday and Holy Saturday). I was interested to see that in the liner notes the GDC recording is claimed as a premiere though, surprisingly, this is not mentioned in the track listing. I am indeed surprised they don’t make more of this fact since to make the first recording of such a work would be a feather in the cap of any choir, I’d say.

This is subtle, intimate and expertly crafted music in which Rubbra responds with great acuity to the texts. In short, they are magnificent, eloquent miniatures (though there is nothing "miniature" about the emotions they express) and they receive devoted performances here. Comparing the two recordings I found that in general the St. John’s performance adopted marginally quicker tempi but the differences are pretty slight. The music is far from easy and both choirs rise to the challenges which Rubbra sets them. Just at one point the Cambridge singers seemed to have an edge. In ‘Amicus Meus’ there is a very tricky harmonic shift at the words "ipse est, tenete eum" (track 6, 0’44") and I thought this passage was managed with greater clarity and therefore more successfully by St. John’s choir. However, this was an isolated example and overall the GDC account gives great satisfaction. In these pieces, as is the case throughout the whole recital, they demonstrate a fine dynamic range and good diction.

The Mass setting in honour of St. Dominic is an equally personal work. It was composed in 1948 to celebrate Rubbra’s reception into the Roman Catholic Church, an event of great significance for him. The dedication to St. Dominic was occasioned by the fact that Rubbra’s reception took place on 4 August 1948, that saint’s feast day. The liner notes include a very significant quotation from Rubbra. He wrote of this composition: "Everything from a hushed pianissimo to a fortissimo was dramatically conceived, and every marked nuance should therefore be overstated rather than understated." I haven’t had access to a score but from the evidence of my ears I’d judge that the conductor of Gloria Dei Cantores has taken this dictum to heart for it sounds as if great attention has been paid to detail. The setting is spacious and confident but never showy and I’d say the same applies to the singing here. Though Rubbra eschews the use of polyphony for this listener this Mass, like Vaughan Williams’ G minor setting, has always evoked the spirit and ambience, if not the style of Tallis and Byrd.

It is a deeply personal setting, as can be deduced readily, not least from the Credo which is a real profession of faith. Sample the concluding passage (track 15 from 4’03") where the concluding summation from "Et in Spiritum Sanctum" is set to simple yet intense block chords, culminating in a concise, affirmative "Amen". The Agnus Dei (track 18) displays spare but profound reverence and devotion. It’s a beautiful setting and, like all the rest of the Mass, there isn’t an excess bar in it. The whole Mass is given a splendid, attentive performance here.

I don’t recall hearing Salutation before. It comes from the collection of part songs which the Arts Council commissioned from ten leading composers (and poets) to celebrate the coronation in 1953 of Queen Elizabeth II. Rubbra’s text was supplied by Christopher Hassall (1912-1963) and is interesting in that it remembers the sufferings and anxieties of the British people in the Second World War and the austerity of those days before briefly looking forward to the promise of the new reign. Rubbra responds with eloquent music. This is far from a pièce d’occasion; it’s a fine song in its own right. The singers of GDC perform it well as they do the demanding Festival Gloria for unaccompanied double choir with which they complete their programme.

There is some excellent music on this CD by a fine composer of great skill and integrity whose art is still not appreciated anything like as fully as it should be. For this reason I’m delighted to find his cause so expertly championed on the other side of the Atlantic. I have made some comparisons between this CD and the Naxos release. However, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, differences are slight and both discs will give great pleasure and satisfaction. That said, there is a palpable difference between a mixed voice and an all-male ensemble. So, as the Naxos disc is at bargain price I’d strongly advise collectors to acquire both and savour the differences.

But whatever you do, I’d urge you to hear this fine American disc, especially if you don’t yet know Rubbra’s music. I have a number of the Gloria Dei Cantores recordings in my collection already but this, I would say, is their finest achievement to date. They deserve accolades both for the enterprise of their choice of this repertoire and for their expertise in the execution of it. Recommended with enthusiasm.

John Quinn

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