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Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Improvisation for violin and orchestra op. 89 (1956) [12:25]
Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby op. 50 (Farnaby's Conceit; His Dreame; His Humour; Loth to Depart; Tell me, Daphne) (1939) [13:11]
Violin Concerto op. 103 (1960) [30:19]
Krysia Osostowicz (violin)
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
rec. 25-26 May 2004, Ulster Hall, Belfast. DDD
NAXOS 8.557591 [57:04]
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Edmund Rubbra was not a natural concerto composer; he is the last person you can think of as in any way interested in virtuosic display or pyrotechnics for their own sake. His music is always developed from line and logic.

Having said that the much under-rated Piano Concerto (Op. 85) is a challenging work and the Viola Concerto (Op. 75) is demanding but not always technically. The demand and the challenge lie in the utter musicianship, passion and commitment needed to bring them off.

Rubbra is an unfortunate composer in that his music sounds easy to bring off but behind this façade is severely challenging in execution both for the ensemble and for the soloist. A violinist tackling these works needs to understand and be familiar with, even to love, the language and to see beyond the notes.

In Krysia Osostowicz we have such an exponent. It helps, as her biography reminds us in the booklet, that she has performed and recorded Rubbra before. Perhaps I could mention her versions of the violin sonatas (Dutton CDLX 7101- review), string Quartets( Dutton CDLX 7114 review) and some chamber works (CDLX 7106 review). These discs have quite rightly received wonderful reviews. We and all who knew Rubbra and support the promotion of his still little known works are therefore extremely fortunate that Naxos has encouraged her into the recording studio.

Let’s take the works in turn beginning with the Improvisations. The score is headed and was dedicated to the Louisville Symphony Orchestra of Kentucky in 1956. It was this orchestra that gave it its only other recording on LP in 1977 with Sidney Harth on solo violin. I mention it, not because it’s a version especially worth looking out for in a second-hand shop (it is a poor recording) but because Rubbra himself wrote the sleeve-notes for his own piece and the Britten concerto coupled with it. The work uses material from an earlier unfinished piece for orchestra and violin dating back to the 1930s which seems to be entitled ‘Rhapsody’ Op. 39 although Malcolm MacDonald in his otherwise excellent booklet essay fails to specify this. Rubbra remarks about the unusual opening "I had always been happy with the long cadenza (unaccompanied except for a timpani roll) with which the early Fantasia (sic) opened and when the commission came I felt that I could build upon it with greater assurance."

How I would like to know more about the experimental Rubbra of the 1930s but with works withdrawn, unpublished and unrecorded it is very difficult. Ralph Scott Grover in his huge bible on Rubbra (Scolar Press 1993) quite rightly says on the opening of this work: "at first sight, the jagged melodic contour of the material suggest a tone row, an impression strengthened by the seven separate pitches with which the principal theme opens." Rubbra often used to allude to an early piece for chorus and orchestra: ‘O Unwithered eagle void’ Op. 42 no. 2 which remains unperformed and in manuscript. This is, apparently a twelve-tone work and must date from c.1938. How I, and indeed many others, would love to hear it.

Anyway, Osostowicz and Yuasa make this piece work and it beats the earlier recording by a distance. That said, if any reader can obtain a copy of the BBC recording dating back to November 1981 with the little known violinist Andrew Watkinson and the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Richard Hickox then listen to it eagerly; it is passionate and intense and made me realize for the first time what a fine composition it is. I can only add that Chandos really missed a trick not recording the work with that particular combination in their Rubbra series about a decade ago.

The Improvisations Op. 50 on Farnaby’s best known keyboard pieces - all of which are to be found in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book - was first recorded by Hans-Hubert Schönzeler for RCA in 1976. Again Rubbra was asked to write the sleeve-notes. He reminded us that his publisher said that "to offset the cost of engraving and printing the score of my first symphony in Vienna it was suggested that I might like to write a light-weight work which would be less costly to produce and, at the same time, have a more popular appeal". All I can say is ‘those were the days’. Anyway it is that same score now published by Lengnick that you can still purchase. What an attractive piece it is – five movements for little more than a chamber orchestra playable by amateurs, with attractive melodies and harmonies which sound Elizabethan but, and this is significant, also sound like Rubbra. ‘His Dreame’ is typical with its occasional somewhat sudden key changes and the use of false relation of Rubbra’s harmonies in general.

This is an elegant performance quite the equal of the Schönzeler. All tempi are ideal and the recording allows the piece to speak clearly.

The Violin Concerto received its premiere recording on Unicorn-Kanchana by Carl Pini in 1986 (DKP 9056 nla). I never quite took to that version. The recording seemed unventilated and Pini’s tuning was sometimes unconvincing. Conifer recorded the work in 1994 (CDCF 225 nla review) with Tasmin Little as the soloist. This transformed the work for me. I still find Little excellent but this new version is certainly its equal. It is however interesting that of the three versions it is this new one which has the least forward momentum the first movement being an amazing 68 seconds slower than Little. It should be remembered that it is, after all marked Allegro. Pini’s version conducted by David Measham has much more momentum in this opening movement, but consequently appears rather breathless at times being no less than two minutes faster than Osostowicz. In fact her other movements are also considerably slower than the Conifer or Unicorn versions. The beautiful ‘Poema’ second movement certainly benefits from long-breathed phrases. Osostowicz is a minute and a half slower than Pini who is, anyway, rather unpoetic. In the finale I prefer the showmanship of Tasmin Little and Vernon Handley who really understand Rubbra. The Pini performance of the finale is quite exciting and also sometimes ragged but with a good emphasis on the many, typically Rubbran cross-rhythms.

This Naxos issue is a very welcome release both for its couplings and for its performances. This is the second Rubbra CD from Naxos. You might recall a choral music recording in 2001 (8.555255 review). Let us hope that more will come and that the day when Rubbra’s music is firmly in the repertoire is not too far away.

Gary Higginson

see also review by Kevin Sutton [November Recording of the Month] and Rob Barnett



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