British music has a significant document in this issue of two Rubbra symphonies in historic performance.
RUBBRA: Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 45; Symphony No. 4, Op. 53 – BBC Symphony Orchestra/ Sir Adrian Boult (Op. 45)/ Edmund Rubbra (op. 53) – SommCD 0179, 72:23 (3/2/18) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) enjoys the distinction of having been classified “first and foremost a symphonist.” At the premiere of the Symphony No. 2 (December 1938) under Sir Adrian Boult, Robert Simpson commented on “the deep thoughtfulness and lack of surface brilliance…[that] will withstand long familiarity and deep examination.” The symphony conforms to Rubbra’s typical avoidance of sonata-from procedure, preferring to advance the melodic line through colors and dramatic shifts. The first movement, an expansive Lento rubato, reveals his dynamic alternations of textures, especially in the woodwinds, the flute and the oboe, respectively. The music often blazes up, only to recede into darkly liquid passages. The performance—8 October 1954, in live broadcast from Maida Vale Studios—unleashes potent response from the BBC under Boult, who by now had thoroughly imbibed the score’s wide canvas, which ranges from the bleak colors in Shostakovich to the more exotic hues in Sibelius. The movement ends bi-tonally, D Major in the strings against A Minor in the oboe line.
The Scherzo: Vivace assai, presents a series of shifting meters in fluid and brisk figures. The brass, strings, and tympani, highly syncopated and agitated, clash and grumble effectively. Almost without respite, the music cascades forward, belligerent and inexorable. In the Adagio tranquillo third movement, spacious woodwind and string chorales moving in opposite directions evoke Sibelius; and like that composer, the resulting sonorities emerge modally and warmly askew. The last pages beat out an ostinato melos that becomes darkly obsessive. The closing Rondo: Allegretto amabile, again using irregular meters, preserves a vaguely nautical, “British” rhythmic profile, and it maintains a pulsing, jaunty momentum through increasingly heavy, intrusive brass-and-percussion punctuations. Rubbra had revised the concluding pages in 1946, so the work might end in D Major, asserting the composer’s essential optimism.
Norman Del Mar calls the opening pages, Con moto, of the 1942 Symphony No. 4 “one of the most beautiful beginnings not just in Rubbra but in all English music.” In this performance, the composer leads the BBC at the Royal Albert Hall, London 14 August 1942. The music evolves from a basic E Major triad—dropping fifth and rising third—and proceeds by exploiting permutations of the chord. The syncopated progression suggests a kind of beatitude, much in the manner of the Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony. The latter portion of the first movement becomes declamatory, more strident in character, martial, and aggressive. The “periodic” character of the music invokes comparisons with both Sibelius and Bruckner. The brief second movement, Intermezzo: Allegretto grazioso certainly nods to Sibelius as its spiritual kinsman, the harmonies modal and the lilt waltz-like. The last movement assumes proportions common to Bruckner and Elgar: Introduzione: Grave e molto calmo – Allegro maestoso. After deep tones in the low strings and active tympani, the BBC brass will emerge in the heroic mode, surging and strutting forth, much in recollection of the fanfares in the Sibelius E-flat Symphony. Whether the Rubbra Fourth should keep its first assessment, as “an epic wartime work, as remarkable for its serene, other-worldly opening movements as the Brucknerian contrapuntal grandeur of its bipartite Finale,” we leave to the contemporary listener.
Restoration and Mastering Engineer Ted Kendall has imbued these performances with a vigor and valedictory character that overcomes much in the way of technical limitations of the period, specifically for the nine sides of the 78rpm discs of the Fourth Symphony. The disc concludes with Edmund Rubbra’s spoken introduction of his Fourth Symphony (9 August 1942) from BBC Radio’s This Week at the Proms. Eschewing any “program” as such, Rubbra leaves the music to its “essence… subject to its own laws and volition.” Rubbra demonstrates several motives on the piano, whose tone color suffers in its acoustics. The effect, nonetheless, aided by the clarity of Rubbra’s voice and sudden improvement of the recorded sound at 4:20, makes the lecture both informative and historically irreplaceable.