Opus One has a distinctive job to do to promote
its kind of music so don’t be alarmed by the discs. They come
in a card slipcase with notes on a rather basic booklet which
sometimes sticks itself (and text) to the plastic sheath that
holds them. This is a minor inconvenience and one should remember
that the music is the thing.
John Donald Robb
was born in 1892 and lived a very long life, dying only in
1989. He was a lawyer – he practised international law in
New York – but had a parallel interest in music and studied
with composers stretching from oratorio meister Horatio
Parker to Darius Milhaud – and taking in Hindemith, Nadia
Boulanger and Roy Harris as well. Quite a line-up of teachers.
He was also to teach music in New Mexico, founded an orchestra
and conducted it, made extensive ethnomusicological field
trips and did quite some composing.
The Symphony is
written in three movements and dates from around the end of
the Second World War. The second movement, Elegy for Our
Dead, has often been performed independently of the symphony
and obviously serves as a memorial. Robb writes in an idiom
somewhere between Vaughan Williams and Bartók. The string
writing is sometimes reminiscent of the former and the folk
sections of the latter, though the ethos, at least in the
first movement is rather light-hearted in a broadly concerto
grosso kind of way. The keening solo cello of the second
movement and string consolation represents something altogether
deeper, especially with its hints of the Barber Adagio.
The finale’s folk variations, on a theme that sounds quite
adjacent to When Jonny Comes Marching Home Again, are
again couched in a VW string cantilevered image and they’re
notably genial, albeit with a quiescent and affirmative close.
work, the 1953 Viola Concerto, is at once a more adventurous
and much less successful work. Based on Mexican folk music
– Robb spent many years in New Mexico – it takes themes native
to the area. The dance drama does however sound subdued and
there’s little really especially distinctive about the writing.
The Mexicana is also rather drably done. True, there are some
colourful local accents in the finale, which is the most distinctive
of the three movements (and has a good throwaway ending) but
too much of this concerto – it’s really more a series of sketches
than a concerto – meanders.
The Polish orchestra
and viola soloist Dariusz Korcz all make a good enough showing
under David Oberg. I wondered initially whether a lack of
sonic immediacy may have blunted the concerto’s impact but
I think not – it’s the work. This is one for those piqued
by obscure Americans who cleave attractively to traditional
models - and who might go easier on the Viola Concerto than
Contact: Opus One Box 604, Greenville,