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The Complete Music of Rubbra and Britten for Recorder
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)

Meditazione sopra 'Coeurs Désolés' Op. 67; Air and Variations Op. 70; (consort) Passacaglia sopra 'Plusieurs Regrets’ Op. 113; Notturno Op. 106 (consort); Sonatina for treble recorder and harpsichord Op. 126; First Study Pieces for treble recorder and keyboard Op. 118; Fantasia on a chord Op. 154; Introduction, Aria and Fugue Op. 104 for solo harpsichord; Fantasia on a Theme of Machaut for recorder, harpsichord and string quartet Op. 86;
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Alpine Suite; March and Morris Dance from Gloriana; Scherzo for recorder consort;
Josquin des Près Coeurs Désoles; Juan Vasquez 'En la fuente del rosel; Machaut 'Plus dure'
The Flautadors; Dante Quartet; Laurence Cummings, harpsichord; Susanna Pell, viola da gamba; Patricia Rozario, soprano
Recorded at All Saints Church, East Finchley, November 2003

We are in the debt to this enterprising company for presenting to us so much British chamber and vocal music from the 20th century that were otherwise which in danger of sinking without a trace. Those of us who particularly love the Rubbra’s music will be especially delighted that this disc the sixth that Dutton have devoted to his works.

Britten and Rubbra: these two giants of 20th century British music have several things in common. Most importantly they believed in being 'useful' as composers and musicians. That means writing effectively for amateurs and/or writing for unusual instruments.

Back in the 1940s Carl Dolmetsch and the Dolmetsch family were building up the repertory for the recorder. They edited old music certainly and had their editions published for amateur ensembles. They also commissioned many works from a wide variety of composers right into the 1970s. Rubbra was a chief beneficiary of their policy through which he found a real love of the recorder and had a strong interest in mediaeval and renaissance music. Britten was another such. The booklet contains a charming photo of Britten and Pears (c.1955) playing on a boat with a recorder consort and Imogen Holst.

Some of these Rubbra works have been recorded before and I shall briefly refer to these alternatives. Other works have not. These include a late work 'Fantasia on a Chord' Op 154, the 'Air and Variations' for Pipes played here very successfully by 'The Flautadors' recorder consort, and 'Notturno', also for recorder consort.

But to start at the beginning. Rubbra's first work was the 'Meditazione on 'Coeurs désolée' Op 67 using a song by Josquin des Pres, (1445-1521) written for Carl Dometsch and Joseph Saxby. It created quite an impression when it first appeared. It has been recorded by many times. You may especially remember David Munrow's version. A BMS CD with Ross Winter accompanied by Andrew Ball (BMS 425 'The Dolmetsch Legacy) is a good benchmark. Winter has piano accompaniment and is more expressive than Catherine Fleming. Obviously the greater sustaining ability of the piano allows Winter to be a little slower. I do prefer this approach. Nevertheless Rubbra knew what he was doing with the harpsichord and it is good to hear it here.

Rubbra's next work was the 'Passacaglia on 'Plusieurs Regrets' also by Josquin. It is a piece I have always preferred having played it on the flute with organ, and one set for a higher recorder grade. I was heartened to read, in the excellent booklet notes by Andrew Mayes, that Rubbra himself thought that it was even better than the earlier one. It uses the first twelve bars of the Josquin and repeats it as a ground 15 times. I find it a glorious piece and here I prefer the greater drive given to it by Ian Wilson.

Thinking of works for solo recorder with harpsichord and gamba (or cello), Ian Wilson also plays the 'Fantasia on a Chord' written in the late 1970s. It is little known. The chord itself, probably bi-tonal, is difficult to analyse but has a typical Rubbran mystery about it. The work is a typical example of his controlled improvisation in the style of the Indian raga players he so much admired. Here the chord is explored and turned inside out, ruminated upon. My disappointment with the piece is that more than half of it is straight repeated - an unusual thing for the composer to do.

The 'Cantata Pastoral' Op. 92 is a rare piece of Rubbra in that it actually sounds Oriental (rather like the Piano Concerto's 1st movement). It is a seven minute setting of three very early nature poems ending, surprisingly, with one by St.Augustine. Patricia Rozario is the soloist in this unique combination of soprano (actually Rubbra asks just for high voice), harpsichord, recorder and gamba. Actually I don't find the quality of this singer’s voice quite right for this music. But neither do I particularly warm to the light tenor of Tony Boute on an Albany disc which appeared in 1992 (TROY 041). Perhaps this piece awaits its ideal recorded performance.

On that same Albany CD you will also find the 'Fantasy on a theme of by Machaut' (1300-1377) with the flute substituted for a recorder. The recorder is preferable however as the thick and expressive string textures need something to cut through them cleanly. It is extraordinary to hear immediately before it on this new disc the simple three-part original. Yo my ears Rubbra transforms it into a romantic miasma of sound redolent of the English landscape. The original is almost lost in the complex polyphony. It has been suggested that this work could act as the centre part of a triptych with the two Josquin pieces flanking. I tried it out by programming the CD and I must say that it was most satisfying.

The Opus 128 Sonatina is Rubbra's longest work in this context. It falls into three movements, the third using another early melody this time by the 16th Century Spaniard Juan Vasquez, in its last movement. Again Dutton helpfully let us hear the original, played by the recorder consort this time after the Sonatina. This work was also recorded by Ross Winter with piano, but, especially in the piled up left-hand dissonances in the 1st subject's development section, it is clear that the harpsichord with its extra bite is not only preferable but necessary. This is clearly what Rubbra wanted as this section marks off a contrast from the lyrical opening of the exposition. In this piece especially I prefer the more exact tuning of Ian Wilson.

The First Study Pieces amount to six 'feathers' for treble recorder one might say. These are all over in three minutes and here are accompanied by the harpsichord. Although they use few actual pitches the rhythms are trickier than might be expected of very young players. This might explain why they are little known. Catherine Fleming gives them every possible chance to be savoured.

The Britten works show the great man at ease on summer afternoons writing miniatures for friends. They are short, fleeting but in the case of the un-opused 'Alpine Suite' a really useful contribution to the repertoire.

It's good to have Rubbra's 'Introduction, aria and fugue' played here by solo harpsichord as intended. However it comes across as a charmless and somewhat scrappy piece in this rather forced performance which clips a minute off a much more expressive and sensitive one played by Michael Dussek on the piano (Dutton Labs CDLX 7112).

It is especially good to hear the recorder consort works on this CD. They are rare and beautifully played. The recording likewise is excellent. I heartily recommend this fascinating project.

Gary Higginson

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