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Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
The Sacred Muse

Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A flat, Op. 65* (1948) [7:23]
Tenebrae First Nocturn Op. 72 (1951) [9:47]
Tenebrae Second Nocturn Op. 72 (1961) [7:35]
Tenebrae Third Nocturn Op. 72 (1961) [12:01]
Missa in Honorem Sancti Dominici Op. 66 (1948) [16:17]
Festival Gloria Op. 94 (1957) [5:27]
James E. Jordan Jr. (organ)
Gloria Dei Cantores/Elizabeth C. Patterson
rec. Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts

Gloria Dei Cantores (Singers to the Glory of God) is a choir from the town of Orleans on Cape Cod. Originally inspired by George Guest, they have gained an international reputation for their stunning and reverent performances of music ranging from Gregorian chant to music of the 21st century. Their fame has been augmented by number of international tours and over fifty recordings. This particular disc was originally released in 1999 and extremely well-received (review). It is devoted to the church music of Edmund Rubbra, a composer with whom the choir seems to have an especial affinity.

Although Rubbra may be best known to recording listeners for his symphonies, more than a third of his output is for voices, much of it sacred music. He has written for both the Anglican and Roman Catholic rites and converted to the latter in 1948. To celebrate this event, he wrote the Missa in Honorem Sancti Dominici -a work that is austere but with much underlying feeling. Rubbra’s unique combination of technical facility and innate drama, plus his veneration for the Tudor masters, is especially evident in the Gloria and the Benedictus of this mass, while the Agnus Dei is moving not only on its own, but a provides a perfect summation of the musical and emotional content of the entire work.

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, for the Anglican service of Evensong, demonstrates the same combination of technical expertise and emotional intensity as in the Missa in Honorem Sancti Dominici. But the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis is a much more angular work, one that immediately demands the listener’s attention, rather than gradually evoking it, as the Mass does. The Magnificat itself has an especially fine solo for tenor, demonstrating the composer’s awareness that the Magnificat text was originally sung by a solitary person, Mary, and not by a whole choir. The Gloria is not a separate entity but develops organically out of the Magnificat. The Nunc Dimittis is more restrained but increases in intensity until capped by the same Gloria as ended the Magnificat.

This disc also contains two very different smaller works. Salutation was Rubbra’s contribution to A Garland for the Queen, a 1953 collection of a capella choruses commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II; the composers were Bax, Berkeley, Bliss, Finzi, Howells, Ireland, Rawsthorne, Rubbra, Tippett, and Vaughan Williams. It is a fine little work, but listeners will probably want to have it in a recording with its nine companions. The Festival Gloria is only six minutes in length but could not really be described as small. Commissioned by St. Paul’s Cathedral and written for 8-part choir, it would ably fill a great space. Rubbra’s use of antiphonal effects (especially contrasts between choir and soloists) is masterly and leads to a stunning “Amen”.

Tenebrae is the series of candlelit services during Holy Week in which a candle is extinguished after each reading, eventually leaving the church in darkness. Rubbra’s setting comprises the nine responsories for Maundy Thursday. There are three Nocturns, each consisting of three responsories (motets). Rubbra composed the three Nocturns over a period of ten years but while he may not have intended them as a single entity they work together very well and demonstrate the composer utilizing every choral device at his command.

The highlight of the first Nocturn is the central section with its fascinating use of solo soprano against male voices. The concluding section is more disjointed, leading to an anguished conclusion. The second Nocturn begins with a sense of what one might describe as “quiet pain” before the central ‘Judas mercator pessimus’ with its brilliant contrapuntal writing. The anguish increases in the ‘Unus ex discipulis’ due to the composer’s skillful handling of dynamics. The third Nocturn is the most emotionally intense, ranging from the chill of the first section to the final despair of the third. Taken together Op. 72 is perfectly appropriate for its liturgical function but equally a consummate example of choral music.

Gloria Cantores Dei brings several of their vaunted qualities to these performances. The choir has an enviable clarity to their singing, a truly reverential sense, and great beauty of sound. Due to the comparative lack of recordings of Rubbra’s choral music the main alternative to the GDC, as it was when John Quinn reviewed the original release of this disc, is the Naxos English Choral Music series with Christopher Robinson and the Choir of St. Johns’ College, Cambridge (review). The sound of Gloria Cantores Dei is slightly more beautiful than that of the Choir of St. John’s but Robinson and his choristers take all the music at a slightly faster pace and this makes for greater variety among the individual works. There are several factors which further distinguish the two discs from each other: boy’s voices versus sopranos, the Chapel of St. John’s as opposed to the Worchester, Mass. Mechanics Hall, the respective sounds of the organs used in the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. The Robinson disc contains Rubbra’s Missa Cantuarensis which the GDC disc does not, but then the latter contains the only available recording of the Festival Gloria. The Naxos disc is probably the recommendation for the listener wanting a single disc of Rubbra church music but anyone wanting a more comprehensive selection of the composer’s choral output will want both discs and will assuredly not regret any duplication. Highly recommended.

William Kreindler



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