Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Symphony No. 9 Sinfonia Sacra (1971) * ** premiere recording The Morning Watch (1941) ** premiere recording Lynne Dawson (soprano) * Della Jones (alto) * Stephen Roberts (baritone) * BBC National Chorus of Wales ** BBC Welsh SO/Richard Hickox   CHANDOS CHAN 9441 [56.55]

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Review by Rob Barnett:-

The serenity and remorseless tread of Rubbra's wartime setting of Vaughan's The Morning Watch (a poem which six years previously Bax set for similar forces) is remarkable. For anyone at all familiar with the Fourth Symphony the parity of character between the two contemporaneous works is patent. 'Prayer is the world in tune' indeed! This is a work of intoxicating singleness of purpose. Its placing among the cycle of the symphonies is not simply a matter of convenience. It has its own undeniable symphonic spirit. Later to become a master of the compact symphony (see symphonies 10 and 11) this work is amongst the earliest germinator of that natural flame. Serenity and exaltation tread with warmth and beneficent confidence through this compact span.

There is little of Sibelius in this work and more of Bruckner and Brahms (remember Rubbra's orchestration of the Brahms' Handel Variations once recorded by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphians) and a trace of Elgar and yet none of these are ever entirely in focus. Rubbra stands clear and distinctive above and through the music. Hickox knows this music very well having broadcast it on Radio 3 with the BBC Singers and BBC Concert Orchestra on 29 November 1981 and I think this shows. If you are looking for a complete work of some gravity and weight of purpose and yet of 'manageable proportions' this, together with Symphony No. 11, is the one to try.

Hickox also knows Sinfonia Sacra well. He conducted a studio performance for Radio 3 and this was broadcast on 29 November 1981. Two of the singers in that performance also appear in this Chandos version: Della Jones and Stephen Roberts taking their roles 12 years (almost to the day) after that studio event. Lynne Dawson's role was taken originally by Catherine Bott.

The work is given a reverential performance in a work that is understated and intrinsically undramatic in any obvious sense. This work majors not on the big climactic sequences of Symphonies 4 and 6 but the long lines of the finale of No. 6 and the far from immediate accessible subtleties of No. 8. Its sincerity is never once in doubt but, as a work, for me this reeks of the spirit of the mournful oratorio (its origins were as an oratorio) on which the Three Choirs have subsisted from its origins. I have no negative criticisms of the performance which radiates light. However by the side of the shorter work on this disc Sinfonia Sacra seems positively discursive. Long works can be succinct. This one has an air of wonder about it but its spirit seems very personal to Rubbra himself. I have no doubt that this is my problem not Rubbra's and many people regard this work very highly. As a performance this work eradicates any need for other companies to consider a competing version.

Rob Barnett

Review by Hubert Culot:-

I have long been waiting for a recording of Rubbra's ninth symphony. I will not therefore conceal my enthusiasm for the present release which is part of the Chandos Rubbra cycle. As is often the case with choral symphonies purists will possibly argue that, no matter how satisfying, the structure of the piece it is by nature non-symphonic. Anyway since Mahler, the concept of the multi-movement choral-orchestral symphony has come to be more readily accepted. After all, a symphony (or any piece of music) is what the composer makes of it. However it goes without saying that the overall structure of the ninth symphony is looser than, say, that of the masterly Sinfonia da Camera (No. 10) Op. 145 but Rubbra nevertheless pruned down his material to ensure a more tightly organised structure.

The symphony was first sketched as a passion along Bach's lines. Later Rubbra abandoned the idea, compressed the liturgical text to fit his new symphonic project and was ready to start afresh having realised that "the formal problem of the new symphony was a symphonic one: the desired unity could be achieved only by shaping the textures of symphonic ends..." (Rubbra as quoted by Adrian Yardley). However the formal design remains roughly the same as that of a Bach passion, each of the four sections of the symphony ending with a Latin hymn.

Formal unity is achieved through the recurrent use of motives and intervals rather than by a more symphonic development of the thematic material. There are many impressive moments, such as the opening bars of the symphony suggesting darkness wide-spread chords) and the terror of darkness (timpani at first, then pizzicati on low strings). The climaxes are superbly achieved and really sound as the point of arrival of what has gone before. The work as a whole is a very imposing achievement even if at the end one cannot ascertain its symphonic nature. Again, this is, to my mind, rather futile for what really matters is the grandeur of Rubbra's vision and the conviction he put in realising it. No wonder that he considered his ninth symphony as one of his finest works.

The Morning Watch Op. 55 (1946) is a beautifully impressive setting of Henry Vaughan's poem which incidentally Daniel Jones also set in his cantata The Country beyond the Stars. (In this respect it may be interesting to compare both settings.) The work opens with a weighty orchestral introduction leading to the majestic entry of the chorus with the words "O Joy! Infinite sweetness!" It then slowly builds up towards an impressive climax which is followed by an orchestral interlude leading into the, more reflective, second part. The work ends quietly and meditatively.

This is a fine and welcome release. Everyone concerned plays and sings with utmost conviction in what I believe to be one of Rubbra's greatest pieces. The soloists are very fine and the choir sings bravely throughout and all receive ardent support from the orchestra. Again Richard Hickox proves his deep sympathy for this music and this Rubbra cycle is likely to be another supreme achievement on Chandos' part. Highly recommended.

Hubert Culot


The Morning Watch

Philharmonia Singers BBC Scottish SO / Charles Groves 1960s?

BBC Singers BBC Concert Orchestra / Hickox 29 Nov 1981

Sinfonia Sacra

Bowen, Proctor, Luxon, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Charles Groves f.p. 1973

Kennard, Walker, Duplessis, BBC Singers BBC Choral Society BBC Concert Orchestra Charles Groves 30 Apr 1980

Bott, Jones, Robert, BBC Singers BBC Concert Orchestra / Hickox 29 Nov 1981

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