In a recent review, comparing recordings of Rubbra's Fourth
Symphony by Norman Del Mar (Lyrita SRCD.202) and Vernon Handley
(Carlton Classics 15656 91932), I deemed Del Mar, who projected
the score's arching lines with more assurance, the more authoritative
and convincing exponent of this composer.
Rehearing the present Handley performances - which, in their
U.S. LP edition, turned me on to Rubbra's music in the first
place - forces me to temper, if not quite to reverse, that judgment.
Where Del Mar painted Rubbra's music in broad strokes as severe,
epic canvases, Handley's more nuanced treatment of the orchestral
sonority - his greater attention to precision of attack and
release, and to timbral blending - reproduces a wider-ranging
orchestral palette. This renders the music more easily assimilable.
Del Mar's version of Rubbra is "important"; Handley's
version, without sacrificing the music's stature, is beautiful
and more immediately pleasing.
The composer's use of the woodwinds, singly and as a group,
as a contrast to more massive sonorities elsewhere produces
some fetching moments in the first of the D major symphony's
four movements. These include, notably a liquid, searching passage
launched by the flute at 3:58, and the desolate, poignant oboe
solo at 9:14. The Scherzo, with constantly changing meters,
somehow achieves an easy buoyancy. In the Adagio tranquillo
third movement, spacious woodwind chorales moving in opposite
directions evoke Sibelius, though the resulting sonorities are
warmer and "deeper" than that. The closing Rondo,
again using irregular meters, still has a vaguely nautical,
"British" rhythmic profile, and maintains its momentum
through increasingly heavy, intrusive brass-and-percussion punctuations.
Since Sir Adrian Boult's commercial discography was heavily
weighted towards mainstream British repertoire, it's good to
have this Seventh Symphony as a document of his work in "newer",
if still relatively conservative, music. His atmospheric performance
displays a gratifying attention to the expressive potential
of color and texture, in place of the laissez-faire attitude
of his later studio work.
Expansive string chords, and exploring horn and oboe soli, set
a mysterious tone at the start. Anxious, pulsing triplets sneak
in, gently propelling the music forward, and playing against
the rocking 6/8 motion of the main theme. In the development,
which lurches forward a bit, stabbing horn accents intrude into
the texture. The faster, scherzando section of the central
Vivace e leggiero movement offers short, pointillistic
bursts of color; ominous brass interjections are set against
lilting, dance-like passages. The more deliberate trio, at first
light in texture, grows heavier as the lower brass come to dominate,
with a sense of mass continuing into the return of the opening
material. The layering of sonorities in the closing Passacaglia
e Fuga generates a sort of cautious affirmation, against
which a haunting passage for woodwinds at 10:28 stands in sharp
The circumstances surrounding the composition of the Festival
Overture are unclear - conductor Handley's booklet note
doesn't even mention the piece - but, whether or not it was
composed for a specific occasion, it stands firmly in the line
of English ceremonial music. It opens with the pompous strut
of confident brass; a more fluid, woodwind-dominated second
theme and a perky march maintain the strutting rhythmic underpinning,
sometimes in the timpani. The climax, with its big brass chords,
has a nice grandeur and breadth.
Lyrita's sonics are excellent, as usual. No session dates are
provided, but the Handley material carries a publishing date
of 1978, the Boult recording that of 1970.
Stephen Francis Vasta
also review by Colin Clarke