Comparative review by Colin Clarke
Robert Layton, in his otherwise frustrating booklet note - though brief, it manages to be at once technical and uninformative - cites Harold Truscott's observation that Rubbra's sonority "is not primarily an orchestral sound at all and you have to forget color and concentrate on line development." This took me by surprise, since it was the boldly drawn, stabbing orchestral colors of the Festival Overture
, conducted by Vernon Handley on an HNH Records LP, that first turned me on to this composer's music.
But, while listening to this program, I eventually understood what Truscott was hearing. To be sure, Rubbra had a fine ear for the interplay of color and texture in lightly scored passages - the searching oboe line over walking pizzicatos at the Third Symphony's start hooked me immediately - and his full-throated deployment of the brass choir in climaxes is characteristically "English," familiar from Vaughan Williams and other symphonists. The more capacious textures, on the other hand, are built from an impasto of Schumannesque wind-string doublings; all the musical elements seem to register clearly - to the extent I could tell without a score - but the sonorities frequently sound a notch heavier than necessary. One imagines that, say, Mahler, had he composed in this manner (admittedly unlikely), would have made more from less, forging distinctive blends from among winds or
strings to differentiate individual textural strands.
The opening movement of the Third Symphony is representative of Rubbra's overall aesthetic, setting hopeful lyric passages against others of Sibelian starkness, the whole conveying a Romantic yet rugged grandeur. The chipper woodwind staccatos of the scherzo are similarly undercut by darker legato undercurrents. The third movement, Molto adagio ma liberamente
, arrives over slow, steady drumbeats, evoking a mood not of menace but of stoic resignation. After growing more anxious and intense, the music gradually subsides into calm. The impulse motivating the theme-and-variations finale, unusually, is lyrical and buoyantly expansive, with prominent brass adding a perhaps unearned ominous note to the concluding fugue.
The Fourth Symphony is more intricate, musically and emotionally. At the start, strings intone broad phrases over steadily pulsing winds - a number of such ostinatos, in fact, provide a sort of "heartbeat" for the entire movement - set off by the woodwinds' more piquant second theme. The central Intermezzo
movement has a gentle rocking motion underpinning lyrical but harmonically unstable themes. The finale's bleak slow introduction slowly builds up steam, eventually breaking into an Allegro maestoso
march that strides proudly, though the disturbed undercurrent is never entirely banished.
The two shorter pieces offer a nice contrast. A Tribute
was commissioned by the BBC for Vaughan Williams's seventieth birthday. Layton claims it sounds nothing like the earlier composer, but the rocking, unstable theme - prefiguring, perhaps, the Fourth's Intermezzo
- has a familiar pastoral "swing". The repeating motif builds in intensity and fullness, rather in the manner of Ravel's Bolero
, until the motion abruptly stops, at which point the ending turns piercingly introspective. The Overture Resurgam
was also the product of a commission, to mark the centenary of the Church of St. Andrew in Plymouth. It follows a standard concert-overture format: the slow introduction is marked by aspiring crescendos, while the body of the piece is livelier, turning angular and turbulent in tutti
before settling into a peaceful resolution.
Norman Del Mar's conducting is certainly authoritative. The close of the Third Symphony needed a bigger, more gradual ritard than he was willing to allow, or impose; as it is, the music ends abruptly. And Del Mar's perhaps less expert than he could be at organizing Rubbra's thickish orchestrations. Vernon Handley, in his Carlton Classics account of the Fourth Symphony (15656 91932), better controls the component strands of the sprawling instrumental fabric. But Handley is less sure about integrating the rhythmic ostinatos and other such details into the broad musical line, which Del Mar projects more dynamically and persuasively.
The sound is good, in a subtly multi-miked way: in Resurgam
, the harp seems to have received some discreet microphonic assistance, and the woodwind soli, particularly the luscious clarinet, are marginally larger than life.
Stephen Francis Vasta
see also review by Colin