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Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Symphonies: No. 2 in D, Op. 45a (1937) [34’28]; No. 7 in C, Op. 88b (1957) [35’59]. Festival Overture, Op. 62c (1947) [7’19]
abNew Philharmonia Orchestra/Vernon Handley; cLondon Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult
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If any disc can confirm the stature of Edmund Rubbra as symphonist, this is it. The sturdy elementalism of the Symphony No. 2 reveals quite staggering confidence for a composer still in his mid-thirties. Lines may be long and have a sense of aching romanticism about them, but they are subsumed under a determined sense of onward momentum. Neither is the Scherzo, placed second, a playful frolic. Punchy and determined, its insatiable rhythmic element coupled with some decidedly rugged brass writing make for a fairly oppressive ride. The ‘tranquillo’ part of the Adagio’s marking does not extend throughout the entire movement (the longest, at 1’54), leading to a glaring, white-light climax before the music recedes once more to peace. Beginning more like a Scherzo, the mercurial finale (a Rondo marked ‘Allegretto amabile’) is a ‘Rubbra Romp’ of the first order, eminently approachable and guaranteed to bring a smile to the most hardened of faces. The pounding close positively glows in Rubbra’s vibrant orchestration.

The Seventh Symphony dates from full twenty years later. Rubbra’s way with his materials tends more towards the fragmentary and the whole impression is that his music has moved to deeper regions. The uneasy harmonies of the very opening strive for resolution, and the entrance of slow-moving strings implies this will be the case – but the voice-leading shifts uncomfortably. An immense power lies beneath this Lento e molto espressivo and infiltrates the uneasy Allegro moderato.

The ‘Vivace e leggiero’ poses a challenge to any orchestra. Mercurial, parts of it are like an Englishman’s Midsummer Night’s Dream – Rubbra displays an enviable compositional facility. The movement’s climax is of a scorching intensity.

A granitic Passacaglia and Fugue provides the finale. The Passacaglia looms with brooding intensity, scotching each and every attempt to blossom into some more comfortable form of lyricism. This is a magnificent, quarter-hour long movement that is emotionally draining for the listener.

Boult is the perfect interpreter of this music, drawing a committed response from the LPO and never allowing the full textures to become saturated. The Fugue begins peacefully

The joyous Festival Overture acts as a vital, fresh interlude between the two symphonies. Representing Rubbra in unbuttoned mode, Vernon Handley leads a robust, ruddy performance – the only caveat being that the ending sounds somehow unprepared.

With a healthy playing time of over 77 minutes, this is a major issue. All lovers of Rubbra’s music should jump at the chance of picking up a copy.

Colin Clarke

The Lyrita catalogue

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