Edmund RUBBRA (1901–1986)
String Quartet No.2 in E flat Op.73 (1951) [22:56]
Amoretti for voice and string quartet Op.43 (1935) 1 [14:10]
Ave Maria Gratia Plena; O my deir Hert (1922) and O excellent Virgin Princess (1951) 1 [4:36]
Piano Trio No.1 in one movement Op.68 (1950) 2 [21:09]
Maggini Quartet; Charles Daniels (tenor)1; Martin Roscoe (piano)1
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk January 2009
NAXOS 8.572286 [62:53]

Times are good for the admirer of Rubbra’s Quartets. I’m not sure, given its ‘mixed media’ composition whether this heralds a possible cycle from the Maggini, who are themselves heralds of much British chamber music. But they do present the Second in a performance that ranks with the best.

Their performance in fact reminds me very much of that by the Dante (Dutton CDLX7114). Tempo decisions are almost identical and the sense of direction in both performances is very similar. There are important differences however in tonal matters. The Maggini are more veiled, the Dante a touch more overtly expressive. In addition the Maggini tend to sculpt a wider range of dynamics. Rhythmic emphases are deftly pointed in the second movement and the third unfolds beautifully. Potton Hall is a much admired venue but it can seem just a touch chilly in my experience and whilst I would not at all call the performance chilly, the Maltings - for the Dante - sounds warmer. There is really very little in it but again the Dante tend to be a touch more communicative. The Maggini don’t reveal their secrets quite so obviously, but their performance has real beauty of its own. Fluency and ease of articulation characterise their finale too; the Dante sound, and are, heavier in terms of sonority, especially the cello.

Those who like an expansive view should consult the English String Quartet (Tremula 102-2, recorded in 1992) who sound a little as if they were following in the footsteps of the first performers of the quartet, the Griller Quartet, and no one has matched their truly expansive take on the great slow movement (Dutton CDBP 9792, recorded in 1952). The Sterling (all four, in 1996, on Conifer 75605 51260 2) offer a fine performance, if in perhaps slightly inflated sound. I happen to have fond memories of two broadcast performances, by the Coull and the Dartington.

The Piano Trio was once recorded by Rubbra with Erich Gruenberg and William Pleeth; it can now be found on the same disc as the Griller’s performance of the Second Quartet. There is in any case far less competition in this work. The Maggini duo of Gina McCormack - I assume, the notes aren’t clear - and cellist Michal Kaznowski join Martin Roscoe and they unfold the Trio with refinement but fierce concentration. The sense of inevitability is a sine qua non of successful Rubbra performances, also the sense that the music has always existed and is simply being slowly disclosed. The Scherzando section for instance is notably well sprung and leads into the theme with meditation and coda with exemplary sensitivity and dynamic shaping. This is a truly fine performance, though collectors must have the 1952 premiere recording to hand as well.

Turning to the vocal works with quartet, we find in Amoretti that Charles Daniels prefers just a little extra time to explore Spenser’s Sonnets. His long line bears fruit in Sonnet LXXVIII (‘Lackyng my love’) where the sense of leisure is palpable. That said some will prefer Martyn Hill and the Endellion Quartet on Virgin who are a touch more incisive (EMI 5669362). There’s also a fine recording by Richard Edgar-Wilson and the Coull Quartet on SOMMCD 222. There are two small vocal pieces to finish, the Ave Maria Gratia Plena which contains O my deir Hert (1922) and O Excellent Virgin Princess (1951). The early setting reveals his embedded gravity whilst the second setting is more fully characteristic.

No real reservations here; fine performances in good sound – but be aware of equally persuasive readings.

Jonathan Woolf

Fine performances in good sound… see Full Review