Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986) String Quartet No.1 in F minor, Op.35 (1934/46) String Quartet No.3, Op.112 (1964)String Quartet No.4, Op.150 (1977)
Maggini Quartet NAXOS 8.572555
Of all the major British composers, Edmund Rubbra is the one with whom I have struggled to come to terms. I have listened to all his symphonies over the years and cannot relate to them in the same way that I do to his Northamptonshire contemporaries William Alwyn and Malcolm Arnold. Furthermore, I have to confess that I have barely touched the surface of his chamber and instrumental music: in fact I had never heard any of his String Quartets until the present disc dropped onto my doorstep. Yet, as I often say to people – you cannot hear, appreciate and enjoy everything. Even the most prolific of listeners to the gramophone and its technical successors will have lacunae in their auditory adventures. One of mine happens to be Rubbra. However, the opportunity to hear these three string quartets was not to be missed: it was an adventure into the unknown.
The key thing to bear in mind when approaching this music is that these three quartets are quite different in ethos. Summed up very briefly, the First is tonal in its conception; the Third is more ‘spicy’ and the Fourth is densely-packed and reveals its secrets slowly.
The First String Quartet was composed in 1934 – the year of the death of Holst, Elgar and Delius. It was a time of great development for Rubbra when he was exploring new and more developed forms. The following year he would write his First Symphony. The liner-notes tell us that the composer was dissatisfied with the quartet and was close to abandoning it. However Vaughan Williams encouraged him to make an extensive revision and to rewrite the ‘finale’. This was completed in 1946. The work is dedicated to the elder composer with the inscription-‘To R.V.W. whose persistent interest in the original material of this work has led me to the present revisions and additions’.
The quartet commences with an energetic ‘allegro moderato’ which begins reflectively but opens out into more adventurous counterpoint. There is an assurance and competence about these out-workings that suggests confidence and originality. The core of the work is the ‘lento’ which is regarded as an elegy. It is heartfelt music that manages to eschew any form of ‘folkery’ or obvious debt to Elgar: there is a depth and beauty here that is entirely original. Adrian Yardley is right in suggesting that this is ‘one of the most beautiful movements in any English string quartet written before the Second World War’. It does not stretch the imagination to see this as a response to the death of the triumvirate of composers mentioned. However, Rubbra was a pupil of Holst and his death must have been the most significant to him. It is a fitting elegy. I do not know if there is a recording of the ‘original’ last movement of this Quartet; however the present ‘finale’ is an impressive and light-hearted rondo which is based on a theme from the ‘lento’.
The Editor has wisely insisted that whilst ‘the First Quartet is dedicated to Vaughan Williams don't for one moment imagine that it will sound like that composer.’ However he has noted that there are ‘a few fleeting moments where it coasts close to that green and pleasant land ...’ This is a sentiment that I agree with entirely. Certainly this quartet would seem to be the easiest to approach, if new to these works (as I am).
Edmund Rubbra’s Third String Quartet, Op.112, completed in 1963/64, is another step on the composer’s musical journey. The sleeve-notes suggest that ‘many’ have commented on the vocal nature of this quartet. The work would appear to be underscored by a quotation from the great Doctor of the Church, St Thomas Aquinas. He wrote, ‘Song is the leap of mind in the eternal breaking-out into sound’. I am not too sure exactly what the learned doctor meant by this aphorism, but Rubbra has glossed this by suggesting that ‘Song, lyrical song, is indeed the motivating force of this work’. Certainly this atmosphere is carried by the work’s largely contrapuntal nature. It is clear that Tudor polyphony was one of the key influences on the composer’s style. Stephen Johnson has described the quartet as a search for a home key and much of the drama arises from this quest.
The opening is probably also the highlight or the emotional heart of the work. Slow and commanding, this deeply moving music pushes toward release in a jaunty ‘allegretto’. The slow movement, which follows without a break is ‘fugal’ in design. Once again this is powerfully moving writing that is both rich and sonorous. However, the final ‘allegro leggiero’ dispels this profundity. Here is music that fairly bounces along: perhaps there are references to the earlier ‘allegretto’ music from the middle movement? This quartet was given its premiere by the Allegri String Quartet at the 1964 Cheltenham Festival. I understand that it was performed back-to-back with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Zyklus for solo percussion!
The Fourth Quartet, Op.150 was composed as late as 1977 at a time when (in my opinion) much ‘modern’ chamber music was virtually un-listenable: certainly many works had abandoned any sense of tonality or lyricism in favour of innovation and shock-value. It was one of the composer’s last major works.
The Quartet is laid out in two movements; however, the first is subdivided into two major sections – an ‘andante’ and a contrasting ‘allegretto scherzando’. The second movement is an ‘elegiac’ adagio. It is an austere work that does not exude much light and optimism – at least not until the final pages. Perhaps this is due to the ‘fundamental’ melodic interval being the ‘seventh’? However, the terseness of the musical language is matched by the tight formal structure that ensures the listener’s interest is never lost. There is no sense that this music is of an improvisatory nature. Every note counts. It is a moving tribute that surely stands the test of time. There is a depth here that was patently absent in much music written by Rubbra’s more adventurous contemporaries. Although this quartet was dedicated to the composer Robert Simpson it was actually inspired by the death of the young American musicologist Bennett Tarshish (1940-1972), who had recently died from acute diabetes.
There is no doubt that all three quartets are played with sympathy and enthusiasm by the Maggini. The disc makes for an impressive addition to the catalogue of British chamber music. I have already admitted that I have not heard these works prior to reviewing this CD; therefore I am not competent to compare and contrast other versions by the Dante and the Sterling Quartets on Dutton Epoch and Conifer (available from Archiv CD) respectively. Yet based on what I have heard on this present disc, I imagine that all Rubbra enthusiasts will demand this excellent Naxos release to complement the other two cycles.
.With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared