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Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Symphony No 6, Op. 80* [34:17]
Loth to depart. (Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby), Op. 50, No 4 [4:08]
Symphony No 5 in B flat, Op. 63 [29:08]
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli
rec. 14-15 December 1950, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London; *17 July 1956, Cheltenham Festival. ADD
BARBIROLLI SOCIETY SJB1081 [67:55]

Sir John Barbirolli was the first conductor to record a Rubbra symphony and his 1950 EMI version of the Fifth Symphony waited for many years until it was joined in the catalogue by any other Rubbra symphonic recordings. That recording may still be available, I think, in EMI’s British Composers series (review), if you can find a copy, but its reissue here by the Barbirolli Society is logical and welcome.

I suspect the Fifth was selected for recording by the British Council because it was the most accessible of Rubbra’s symphonies to date – arguably it remained his easiest to assimilate. Its length may also have been a factor: it fitted onto nine 78 rpm sides; the fourth of the Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby was recorded to fill the tenth side. Barbirolli’s performance of the symphony will be familiar to all Rubbra acolytes; it’s a fine one. In the first movement the composer’s seriousness of purpose is evident but Barbirolli ensures that so too is Rubbra’s melodic invention and his orchestral colouring. The lighter scherzo offers a pleasing contrast and it’s deftly managed here, the Hallé woodwinds relishing their opportunities.

It’s fascinating to compare Barbirolli’s account of the slow movement with Richard Hickox’s 1996 Chandos recording (review). Hickox takes 7:04 over this movement but Barbirolli‘s reading lasts for exactly 10:00; that’s a very appreciable difference. The Hickox performance is very good – and some may prefer his more objective approach – but Barbirolli digs deeper and, for me, takes the music to a deeper level of expressiveness. It’s worth noting that Rubbra was present at the Barbirolli sessions so one imagines – or at least hopes - he approved of the results. The compressed finale comes off well. I don’t know from what source material Paul Baily has re-mastered this EMI recording for the Barbirolli Society but I have the impression that his transfer gives more body and warmth to the sound than I get from my copy of the EMI disc.

The real treasure trove, however, is a previously unpublished live recording of a performance of the Sixth Symphony, given in Cheltenham Town Hall, I presume, during what were then the annual visits by JB and the Hallé to the town’s music festival. That festival had been established in 1945 and in its early years Barbirolli and his orchestra would appear there on pretty much an annual basis, often performing British symphonies; indeed, they gave a number of premières there. One such was the first performance of Arthur Benjamin’s Symphony, which the Barbirolli Society has already issued on disc (review). This Rubbra performance was not the first outing for the symphony – Sargent had unveiled it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in November 1954 – but it was, nonetheless, a commendably early performance by Barbirolli. While hunting down links to MusicWeb International reviews of other recordings of this symphony I came across a note contributed back in 2009 by Jim Brennan who saw Barbirolli conduct the symphony in Oxford in the Spring of 1956, an occasion when the composer was present. That must have been shortly before the performance captured here. It’s worth reading Mr Brennan’s comments, not least his observation that ‘[Rubbra] was clearly in favour of everything Barbirolli did.’

Since this Barbirolli concert we’ve had the benefit of studio recordings of the symphony, from Norman Del Mar (review) and Richard Hickox (review). Both are excellent but it’s noticeable – and I didn’t come across Jim Brennan’s comments until after I’d completed my comparative listening – that at one or two key points Barbirolli is more expansive than either. That’s principally the case at the start and conclusion of the first movement. The searching opening phrases of the first movement’s Lento introduction are beautifully expressed by the Hallé strings; this performance is broader than either of the two later studio performances, though not hugely so. When the Allegretto arrives Barbirolli – and the other conductors – keep the music lightly on its feet. The Hallé plays with notable conviction; clearly they’d been scrupulously prepared by JB. The slow episode (in this performance 7:50–end) is lovingly phrased here; once again, Barbirolli is marginally the most expansive conductor on disc.

The slow movement is somewhat austere but gravely beautiful. Barbirolli conducts with evident belief and his players respond accordingly – note the expressive opening clarinet solo. The scherzo is invested with good energy. The finale opens with an extended Poco andante (to 4:40) and there’s much eloquence in the way Barbirolli and the Hallé deliver this passage. Once the Allegro moderato is reached this performance has suitable power and purpose though I very much like the hushed but intense slow section (7:52-8:33) just before the end. I find Barbirolli’s way with the whole symphony very convincing.

The recording of the Sixth comes from the composer’s private collection. I don’t know if it’s an off-air recording of a BBC broadcast; it may well be. Despite Paul Baily’s best efforts the sound has its limitations and in the last two movements particularly the louder passages sound rather opaque. Inevitably the Del Mar and Hickox recordings give you a much better impression of Rubbra’s orchestration – quite a lot of inner detail is obscure in the Barbirolli account but no one is going to buy this as a first choice recording of the Sixth but rather as a supplement to either or both of those studio recordings. This is more than a supplement; it’s an essential supplement for while you may not get all the details of the score you most certainly get the spirit of the work in the hands of one of its earliest interpreters. Furthermore, to judge from Jim Brennan’s recollection, we have here an interpretation of which the composer approved.

Robert Matthew-Walker, a firm Rubbra enthusiast, contributes a very good booklet note. The Rubbra Sixth is a significant addition to the Barbirolli discography and as such this issue is an important one for admirers of Rubbra and of ‘Glorious John’. The Barbirolli Society put us in their debt with this release. Let us hope they will be able to give us many more examples of this great conductor at work.

John Quinn

Rubbra review index