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Symphony No. 4 (1941), Symphony No. 10 Sinfonia da Camera (1974), Symphony No. 11 (1979) premiere recording   BBC Welsh SO/Richard Hickox   CHANDOS CHAN 9401 [58.22]

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Review by Rob Barnett:-

If ever there was a generator and channel of light it is Rubbra's Fourth Symphony. It is highly Sibelian; both En Saga and the Fifth Symphony leap to mind. There are some glorious gear-shifts as well as one of the crowning climaxes of British music at 8.33. Hickox’s is a very communicative performance with a persuasive and surprisingly Iberian sway (11.15). He conveys all the tension and release of a late Tchaikovsky symphony. Time and again Rubbra twists the emotional cortex although in the Intermezzo he is light in character, generally Sibelian but with a staggeringly Elgarian recollection at 4.34. Hickox adroitly catches the barely contained excitement of the finale: assertive, heroic yet wraith-like. Amid recollections of Bruckner 4 and 8 the heroic brass leap, surge and rear up in splendour. The rough, rolling, all-conquering horns (3.02) cannot help but recall Sibelius 5. The strings cut benevolent swathes through the canvas and unite in a majestic peak of ecstasy at 4.10. A 20th century masterwork.

Rubbra’s penultimate symphony is, by contrast, understated. On the surface it is not a difficult nut but it is so unassertive that it defies immediate gratification. I have lived with this work since first hearing a radio broadcast (circa 1974) of a performance by the Tilford Bach Ensemble conducted by Denys Darlow. This work is more for devotee connoisseurs. Chandos’s strings are not as treble-emphasised as the old Schönzeler version - also on Chandos. There are moments of recognition for persistent listeners. These include desperately intense strings echoing Shostakovich 6 and Finzian references including the sweet singer of Introit.

The final symphony (no. 11) is dedicated to Colette (his second wife). Its premiere was by the underestimated Nicholas Cleobury and the BBCPO at the Proms. Hickox has done this work before and this familiarity shows. The Eleventh opens like Walton's ‘at the haunted end of the day’ (Troilus and Cressida) meshed with the natural horn sound of Britten's Serenade. The string writing recalls Tippett (Concerto For Double String Orchestra at 1.34) and Finzi. It is amazingly compact at less than a quarter of an hour. It has a long richly resourceful melody showing no dimming of the powers. The work is alive with starry romance (celesta at 5.00) and some of the spirit of Finzi's angelic In Terra Pax. The resplendently dancing horns at the cloud-topped climaxes are not all that distant from Howard Hanson. Parallels also can be found with Pohjola's Daughter (try the brass at 9.00). How wondrously Hickox and the orchestra capture this magical microcosm (13.46) with hallooing French horns and an exhausted warm falling away speaking comfort to the world.

A superb disc and very highly recommended.

Rob Barnett

Review by Paul Conway :-

EDMUND RUBBRA - SYMPHONY no 4 a comparative review of available recordings

Rubbra's Fourth Symphony is an epic wartime work, as remarkable for its serene, other-worldly opening movement as the Brucknerian contrapuntal grandeur of its bipartite Finale. Its first performance was given at a Prom concert on 14th August 1942 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with the composer himself conducting in battle dress. This performance was recorded by the BBC, preserved by them and broadcast on Radio 3 on 25 March 1996 as part of Rubbra's "Composer of the Week" celebrations. It is a remarkably powerful and well-played performance with all the unique authority a composer can sometimes bring in conducting his or her own work.

There are currently 2 versions in the CD catalogue: a Lyrita recording by the Philharmonia under Norman Del Mar from the late 80s (SRCD 202) and the Chandos release in their complete cycle of Rubbra symphonies with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Richard Hickox (CHAN 9401). An analogue live recording by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Vernon Handley dating from February 1976 was released on the BBC Radio Classics label (15656 91932) and is not currently available but may soon be re-released as part of the BBC Classic Collection and so I have included it here.

The opening Con moto movement begins with one of the most enticing passages in any British symphony. Robert Layton, in his programme notes to the Del Mar recording, calls it "one of the most beautiful openings not just in Rubbra but in all English music". It has an elusive but hypnotic character, seeming to be in a perpetual state of "becoming" which is notoriously difficult to capture. The strengths and weaknesses of all three performances are obvious from the very opening bars: Richard Hickox has the advantage of an alert and responsive BBCNOW captured in admirably clear Chandos sound. However, the performance itself feels rather too relaxed to me and also occasionally carelessly conducted. The important accented, weighted and staccato chords, alternating root position triads and third-inversion dominant sevenths, are all delivered with exactly the same weight and emphasis in the Hickox performance, whereas in the Vernon Handley version, they are perfectly articulated. Under Handley, every staccato marking is scrupulously observed and every different type of accent is clearly distinguished. The orchestral playing of the Handley version is good without being outstanding: the BBC orchestra of the 1970s is not quite the equal in terms of depth of tone of their 1990s Welsh counterparts.

Norman Del Mar impresses with an atmospheric reading at a sensible tempo, giving the music time to breathe without impeding the strong sense of inevitability this movement creates. The digital Lyrita recording is well nigh perfect - natural and perfectly balanced. Richard Hickox takes the first movement too briskly to give it the dignity it deserves and he has a tendency to gloss over fluctuations in the dynamics and tempo markings (the rallentando markings on the last pages of the movement hardly register at all). In short, Handley and Del Mar give considered interpretations whilst the Hickox version sounds, to my ears, too much like a blueprint for a projected performance.

The second movement is a graceful Intermezzo in waltz-time marked Allegretto grazioso (sempre delicato). The composer described it as "subdued and delicate" and "designed to give mental relief and refreshment between two movements full of tension". Having failed, in my opinion, to deliver a first movement of sufficient tension, Richard Hickox now misses out on the relief needed in this Intermezzo with what seems to me to be a stodgy, ponderously paced performance leading to a timing of 5'02'' compared with Handley's fleet-footed but occasionally breathless 3'41". Del Mar finds a sensible midway pulse, clocking in at 4'21". His is the most convincing reading of this Intermezzo, flexible and flowing. Yet, Vernon Handley's tempi are the nearest to those in the composer's own 1942 version (not surprising, perhaps, when one considers the broadcast from which the Handley CD comes was recorded in the presence of Rubbra himself, the composer being free to advise on matters of tempo and articulation).

The Finale is made up of a brooding, portentous Grave e molto calmo introduction which leads directly into a heroic Allegro maestoso section. Handley's tempos feel just right with sufficient weight in the introduction to counterbalance the resplendent climax of the concluding Allegro maestoso section. A shame about the trumpet crack on the very last note - irritating on repeated listening but forgivable as the performance on the whole is decently played and sounds very well prepared. Richard Hickox is at his best in this last movement. He creates a genuine sense of expectancy in the first half of the Finale (helped by the sovereign brass section of the BBCNOW) and the ending of the symphony is genuinely exciting and majestic. However, I feel it comes too late to save the performance as a whole, too much of which sounds to me like a run-through. Unfortunately Norman Del Mar disappoints in this Finale, taking it at a brisk tempo that diminishes its stature and makes the triumphant coda (which should crown not just the last movement but the whole symphony) into a hollow victory. Whilst I feel the grandeur of this coda has not been sufficiently hard won in the Lyrita version, in the BBC Handley version the conductor builds the tension right from the start, creating a suitably sombre and brooding Introduction. Vernon Handley also emphasises the maestoso aspect of the Finale's marking rather than the Allegro so that in his reading the ceremonial peroration feels entirely justified.

To sum up, Vernon Handley has the advantage of a live performance with fresh and characterful playing. He manages to observe nearly all the composer's dynamic markings and phrasing and is true to the spirit as well as the letter of this important symphony. The disadvantage is comparatively small - the orchestral playing is not quite up to the highest standards of a studio recording, with the strings occasionally sounding over-stretched. The Hickox version is well played by an impressive BBCNOW and sumptuously recorded but to my ears the performance itself sounds under-prepared: dynamic and articulation markings are either ignored or smoothed out (the Intermezzo is full of dynamic fluctuations from piano to mezzo forte and forte back to piano and these gradations of tempo just don't register). The result of an accumulation of such oversights is a Fourth frustratingly lacking in personality, at least in the first two movements. Nonetheless, the Hickox disc also contains the CD world premiere (and as yet only CD version) of the compact and compelling one-movement Rubbra Eleventh, making it an essential purchase for all Rubbra fans and lovers of the British symphony. Del Mar is a safe choice in the first two movements of the symphony no 4: atmospheric and well recorded, creating the illusion of letting the music speak for itself (without divesting the piece of its own personality) but the rushed Finale is fatally lacking in breadth and rather lets it down.

My final choice has to be the Handley version, an affectionate and authoritative reading conducted with all the imagination married to a respect for the score one would expect from this conductor. Just listen to his handling of the return of the first subject of the first movement (three bars before fig 13) - in his hands the effect is electrifying whereas in the Hickox version it goes for little in an interpretation which too often disdains from digging too deeply into the music. Del Mar runs Handley a close second, for his thoughtful and searching reading also bespeaks a considered approach to the symphony based on long study. Why the BBC hasn't also released the historic 1942 Rubbra version (which sounds remarkably good for its age) or a 1970s broadcast conducted by Malcolm Arnold is a mystery. Perhaps one day the BBC will do so and then my first choice may well have to be reconsidered. It may be that Haitink, Previn or Slatkin will broaden their exploration of British music from RVW and Walton to Rubbra and produce a new recording to challenge the existing releases. Inevitably this is merely an interim pre-millennial review and I hope the future will see a plethora of recommendable recordings, both new and re-released, of this mysterious, grand and unique British symphony.

Paul Conway

Review by Michael Freeman

Of Edmund Rubbra I have always thought in superlatives - Greatest of symphonists - one of the greatest composers of this century - A composer most single-minded of purpose. Well, all this could be so much rhetoric, but this is the disc to endorse those views.

The Fourth Symphony is a magnificent structure exemplifying its composer's repeated demands for "quality of thought". Its first movement grows flowingly from the two simple components, one rhythmic and the other melodic, announced at the very opening. The rest of the work is on the same exalted plane. The score is littered with the direction "espressivo" and other similar emotional epithets: Sonoro, Appassionato, Delicato, Trionfale. This is a symphony with all the passion and strength of a Beethoven or a Tchaikovsky.

Of course were there any genuine culture at the B.B.C. we would, by now, have the archive recording of the 1942 premiere of this work, conducted by the composer to consider. As it is there are two recordings to choose from, and both are perceptive readings. Hickox gives a splendid performance of this great spiritual journey and my only moment of doubt comes with his handling of the second movement "intermezzo". There I do prefer Norman Del Mar's lighter touch. The passionate first movement dissolves into darkness and the finale eventually reaches a truly staggering triumph from a beginning in a similar darkness. The composer was concerned, I believe, that that second movement should give just the right sense of respite. I would urge members to buy both versions. There is no further duplication on the two discs which are both full of great music. I confess that "Rubbra-Four" has been my prime "desert island disc" since long before it was ever recorded'.

Hickox's disc continues with Rubbra's last two symphonies, dating from 1974 and 1979 respectively. They are both very compact one-movement designs of about a quarter of an hour's duration, and, like the fourth, represent symphonic thought of a mighty order indeed. Number 10 is entitled 'chamber symphony", and once more I find Hickox a trifle heavy. Does he use the entire string section of his orchestra? I prefer the finer grained sound of Schönzeler's chamber orchestra on RCA, though everything is clear enough with Hickox. Even in Rubbra's most ardent climaxes Schönzeler's orchestra never sounds more than an iridescent chamber ensemble. Hickox very occasionally verges on the massive.

Number 11 is a premiere recording of Rubbra's last symphony, though he had begun thinking about No 12 when he died. It is a wonderful synthesis and all the moods: scherzo, adagio, finale are there in a nutshell. Ubiquitous fifths eventually climax the piece in exulting horns: a vision of radiance in a simple never-to-be-forgotten image. This is a glorious farewell from one of the most intrepid of spiritual voyagers.

Along with such as Bruckner and Messiaen, Rubbra must surely now, be soaring in that Divine Glory he strove all his life to evoke with such musical clarity. Michael Freeman

Review by Hubert Culot:-

Rubbra's eleven symphonies span his whole creative life and are the backbone of his large and varied output. Some commentators tend to divide them into successive groups although they eventually emerge as successive steps in a continuous preoccupation with symphonic form and each of them reflects a specific facet of the symphonic process. The Symphony No. 4 Op. 53 was first performed in August 1942 when it was conducted by the composer on army leave. It was the last of four works in which Rubbra approached symphonic thinking from various angles.

The first two symphonies, written in quick succession, are highly contrasted pieces whereas the third and fourth symphonies may be viewed as the culmination of the first phase, if such there is, of Rubbra's symphonic evolution. I will not repeat my earlier comments on the fourth symphony (Lyrita SRCD 202). Let it be said that it certainly is a fine work highly representative of Rubbra's symphonic thinking and one in which he achieved some kind of simplicity somewhat lacking in the first two symphonies (and particularly so in the first). I have always considered the tenth symphony as Rubbra's most perfect symphonic structure. It is a short, compact, tightly organised piece in which the essence of symphonic writing is compressed to the extreme, the end result being perfection. It is a deeply moving work in which resolution is achieved by the simplest means. Moreover it is wonderfully scored for small orchestral forces.

The Symphony No. 11 Op. 153, Rubbra's last orchestral work, is also cast into one single movement, but less satisfactorily so. Since the time I heard a tape of its first performance I could not help being slightly puzzled by it and again I still have doubts about it. Rubbra referred to the kaleidoscopic nature of the first section in an attempt to justify its somewhat sectional structure. After repeated hearings I still feel that the piece does not satisfactorily hang together. It always sounded as a prelude to something still to be written. (Later I realised that others, a.o. Ralph Scott Grover in his essential book on Rubbra's music (Scolar Press 1993) expresses much the same doubts about the piece.) The global impression is that the piece is rather a torso than a completely satisfying symphonic structure. There are nevertheless many fine moments to be admired in it and Hickox's reading is deeply committed and convincing, even if the piece does not wholly convince. The performances are very fine indeed and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales play with sympathy and conviction under Hickox who again shows his complete empathy with Rubbra's music. (I eagerly look forward to hearing his performance of the ninth symphony.) Chandos' warm and natural recording suits the music to perfection. Recommended.

Hubert Culot


Rob Barnett

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