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Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Symphony No. 2, Op 45 (1938, rev 1946) [37:12]
Symphony No. 4, Op 53 (1942) [28:32]
Edmund Rubbra introduces his fourth Symphony [6:21]
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult (2) Edmund Rubbra (4)
rec. live, Royal Albert Hall, London 14 August 1942 (4 - first performance), Maida Vale Studios, London 8 October 1954 (2)
Introductory talk broadcast on BBC Radio 9 August 1942
ADD Mono
SOMM CÉLESTE SOMMCD0179 [72:23]

This is a release that will be of enormous interest to admirers of the music of Edmund Rubbra, even though both symphonies have received two modern commercial recordings.

In the case of the Fourth Symphony what we have here is the work’s very first performance, given under the composer’s direction at the Proms in 1942. Rubbra was serving in the British Army at the time and conducted the performance wearing his uniform. Incidentally, the programme cover page is reproduced in the booklet and shows how concert durations have lessened since then. The first half, conducted by Sir Henry Wood was an all-Beethoven affair, comprising the Prometheus Overture, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. These days that would probably constitute a full concert programme. Not in 1942: that only took the concert up to the interval. After the break Rubbra conducted his symphony and then Sir Adrian Boult weighed in with three movements from The Planets. It was probably as well that the concert began at 6pm!

Frankly, Rubbra’s fine symphony was not out of place in such musical company. That wonderful opening, so measured and spacious and so seemingly simple, promises much – and the promise is fulfilled. As Robert Saxton so justly observed in his booklet essay accompanying the Richard Hickox recording: “The music grows, never hurrying, the material creating its own timescale.” As conductor, Rubbra allows his music to unfold very naturally, though as the movement progresses he conveys the increasing urgency. After quite a bit of audible shuffling between the movements we hear the very short Intermezzo. Here Rubbra and his players invest the music with the necessary lightness so that this brief interlude comes across as the ideal foil to the two serious and substantial movements that surround it. The finale consists of two sections with a short pause between them: Introduzione: Grave e molto calmo – Allegro maestoso. The two commercial recordings track the two sections separately but SOMM have everything on one track – the Allegro maestoso starts at 5:02. In the Introduzione Rubbra generates manifest tension – if that’s not a contradiction in terms for music that bears the injunction molto calmo. When the quick section begins Rubbra’s reading has strength and momentum. Later, the performance generates no little power before there’s another injection of pace which takes the movement on to its rather imposing conclusion. The music ends at 11:30, after which it’s pleasing to hear the previously well-disciplined Promenade audience giving both work and performance a generous reception, which is well deserved. The symphony has been very well served by two fine commercial recordings, one by Norman del Mar (review) and one by Richard Hickox (review). Of course, this archive recording can’t compete with those recordings in terms of sonics but it’s more than valuable to have the composer’s own thoughts on the music documented through this performance. I don’t know how much conducting Rubbra did during his career – nor how experienced a conductor he was at this stage in his life - but he seems to me to make a fine job of this assignment, getting good and committed playing from the BBC Symphony.

That orchestra – or, rather, its 1954 incarnation – was on duty also for the performance of the Second Symphony conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. This, too, is of great interest. Boult was the dedicatee of the work and had given its first performance. That was in 1938, though the composer revised the score quite significantly in 1946. As with the Fourth, I know of two commercial recordings of the Second: by Vernon Handley (review) and Richard Hickox (review). Incidentally, the Handley recording is coupled with what I think is the only other Boult recording of a Rubbra symphony: the Seventh. I esteem both of those versions of the Second but this Boult performance is extremely well worth hearing.

The first movement (of four) is marked Lento-rubato. The music is very serious and strong. Boult is very broad in his approach, though later (around 5:00) when the music becomes more turbulent he conveys that very well, generating the power that the music contains. I noticed that whereas Boult takes 12:53 for this movement both of the other conductors bring it home in rather less time: Handley takes 9:56 and Hickox an almost identical 9:51. The difference lies in the treatment of the opening slow episode, in which Boult is much more spacious and imposing. To give you an idea, both of the other conductors reach the faster, turbulent section at around two minutes earlier than Boult. If that suggests that Boult is too slow all I can say is that I found no lack of electricity in his conducting and the extra gravitas that he imparts at a slower speed brings its own rewards.

Boult’s account of the Scherzo, marked Vivace Assai, has plenty of dynamism and thrust. He secures a committed response from the BBCSO and the music sounds fiery and forceful. The Adagio tranquillo which follows is profound and meditative at first and Boult brings great concentration to the music. He builds the movement very naturally and convincingly to its urgent climax after which the music sinks back into the opening contemplative mood. The finale is an ebullient, often dancing creation and Boult does it well. Throughout the performance I felt a sense of authority. I think we can take it that his reading was in accordance with the composer’s wishes because we read in the notes that Rubbra praised the performance as “quite stupendous”. I was certainly impressed and I think this is a pretty essential supplement to the two modern recordings.

At the end of the disc SOMM include a short radio talk that Rubbra gave a few days before the premiere of the Fourth in which he introduces the new symphony. As well as talking about the work he illustrates a few points at the piano. Whilst I can understand SOMM treating it as a kind of appendix, because not everyone will want to hear the talk often, I found it helpful to play that track before listening to the symphony, even though I have some familiarity with the work.

There’s a tracking error on the disc – although this may have been corrected since I received my copy. SOMM show the second and third movements of the Second Symphony as separate tracks. In fact, on my copy they were combined in a single track. That only matters if you want to listen to the Fourth in isolation, when you’ll have to make a mental adjustment of the track numbers.

The booklet includes a lengthy technical note by Ted Kendall, who has remastered and restored the original source material. When I read what he had to say about the recording of the Fourth in particular I was a bit apprehensive. Inevitably, the sound of a recording of a radio broadcast from 76 years ago has its limitations and Mr Kendall is to be commended for his honesty about the sources. However, I’d say he’s done a very good job indeed of remastering the recording. Yes, there is shrillness in the violins and the climaxes are rather congested but I’d rather focus on the success of Ted Kendall in bringing this recording back to life. I was drawn into the performance from the word go and I found that the sonic limitations were no obstacle to my appreciation. The sound quality on the 1954 BBC studio recording of the Second Symphony is rather better, as you’d expect. This is another successful transfer.

Robert Matthew-Walker contributes an extensive and knowledgeable essay about the music.

Edmund Rubbra’s music is never going to be regarded as crowd-pleasing but, my goodness, his music has genuine substance and great integrity, as both of these fine symphonies demonstrate. I’m delighted that SOMM have made these recordings available. This is an important historical addition to the Rubbra discography.

John Quinn




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