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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 (1938-39) [14:11]
Violin Concerto (1959) [30:29]
Krysia Osostowicz, violin
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
rec. Ulster Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 25-26 May 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557591 [57:04]
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Until the early years of the twentieth century, Western Art Music maintained predictable forms; genres such as the symphony, concerto and sonata had become standardized. That is not to say that composers did not over time expand upon these forms. Certainly it can be said that Mahler and Strauss stretched orchestral writing to breaking point, and that some romantic sonatas such as those by the likes of Alkan became so large and sprawling as to be unwieldy.

By the time Schönberg composed his Five Orchestral Pieces in 1909, it seemed as though traditional orchestral forms were a thing of the past. In spite of the fact that composers continued to write works that they called symphonies and concertos and sonatas, there was often little resemblance to the traditional forms that these genres had taken in the past. Formal structures gave way to large bands of sound as in the works of Penderecki, aleatory gestures such as in the works of Cage and Boulez, and to dozens of other experiments by so-called academic composers, which by and large, were failures and have been forgotten.

Except in England.

Ever conservative and often unjustifiably regarded as the last to know, England kept the symphonic tradition alive in the twentieth century with a raft of superior composers, tirelessly producing a huge body of original, fresh and sadly underplayed music. England boasts one of the most impressive lists of modern successful composers in the world with names like Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, Walton, Bax, Arnold, Parry, Elgar, Stanford and the oft-sung but underplayed Edmund Rubbra. Oft-sung I say because of the enduring popularity of his choral writing amongst Anglican Cathedral Choirs, under played because of his impressive output of orchestral and chamber literature that seems to linger in relative obscurity, for no good reason that I can find.

Naxos, in their inimitable way of bringing fine music to the public at a risk-free price, are helping to mend the gap (or is it mind the gap?) with their superb series of discs from twentieth century British composers.

Rubbra, born in 1901 into a poor family in Northhampton, received his early musical training from his mother. His uncle owned a music shop, and it was there that he was first exposed to great music and was particularly enamored of the works of Debussy and Cyril Scott. He would later go on to become Scott’s pupil before entering the Royal College of Music where he was a student of Holst. Slow to develop his own style, many of his early works reflect the influence of his elder countrymen such as John Ireland and Arnold Bax. An accomplished pianist, he was also active as a chamber musician, and was a respected journalist as well. He died in 1986.

The opening work on the present disc was commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra, an American Ensemble based in the southern state of Kentucky, an unlikely but prolific progenitor of new music, famous for its encouragement of living composers through its ambitious commissioning and recording programs. Although titled Improvisation, there is a noticeable formal structure. Opening with a lengthy and somewhat melancholy passage for solo violin, the work builds in intensity over its short span as the orchestra joins. The Ulster Orchestra and soloist Krysia Osostowicz show themselves to be very able interpreters.

Known to have been influenced by the works of Elizabethan and Jacobean composers, Rubbra deftly adapts a selection of keyboard works by Giles Farnaby (c.1563-1640) into playful and charming miniatures for orchestra. They are played with elegance and grace here and make for a delightful interlude between the two more serious works for solo violin. These would make a great little concert-opener, were (especially) American orchestras creative enough to look beyond nineteenth century Germany for program ideas.

The Violin Concerto is a lyrical work, with more emphasis by the composer placed on melodic and harmonic interest and structure than with sheer virtuoso display. What a relief this work is from the schlock that makes up so much of the concert repertoire for the violin. Beautifully rendered here by Ms. Osostowicz, she plays with an infectious passion coupled with a refined taste and understatement that is instantly engaging. This is compelling music, and given its reserved romanticism, is a safe bet for any audience, regardless of how conservative. Yet, it is wonderfully original and fresh, proving that there is still much to be said through the traditional symphonic forms, and disproving the notion that classical music has run out of things to say.

Takuo Yuasa is a convincing interpreter of these outstanding scores, leading the Ulster players in a finely balanced performance. String tones are lush and intonation and ensemble are of the first order. Tempi seem to me to be spot-on, though without the benefit of having the scores in front of me, I cannot be too judgmental. Naxos have produced a fine recording in excellent sound. Notes are thorough and interesting, but I must remind annotator Malcolm MacDonald that musicians do not play "on" their instruments. Why on earth are writers so abhorrent of the definite article these days?

Well worthy of your shelf space, this is a highly recommendable disc. It upholds my highest criterion for a recording in that it makes me want to seek out more music by this composer and these performers. This is one that should definitely be added to your collection.

Kevin Sutton

see also review by Rob Barnett



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