RUBBRA: Violin Concerto, Op. 103 / Improvisations, Op. 89 (Krysia Osostowicz/ Takuo Yuasa/ Ulster Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.557591)
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Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986)
Violin Concerto, Op. 103 Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby, Op. 50
Improvisation for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 89
Although he was renowned for his symphonies, concertosand quartets, the unique compositional gifts of the Britishcomposer Edmund Rubbra sometimes seemed at variancewith the large sectional contrasts and structural symmetriesof the sonata-based forms he composed in. Rubbra drewperhaps his profoundest inspiration from the polyphonicmusic of the sixteenth century and the Baroque eras - hewas a natural composer of vocal motets, of large, breathingspans of counterpoint. Although a subtle harmonist, thebasic unit of his music is the line, whether for a voice or aninstrument, flexibly moving against and in consort withother lines. Growth happens in the way these lines extendthemselves, growth of a peculiarly organic, alwaysdevelopingkind, more resembling the inner life andprogressive metamorphosis of a plant than the formalarchitecture of, say, a Beethovenian sonata-movement. It isno coincidence that the first movement of Rubbra's PianoConcerto carries the botanical title 'Corymbus', suggestinga shape peculiar to certain plant forms, nor that he wroteone of the most valuable short manuals on counterpoint inthe twentieth century.
One might, therefore, expect any work that Rubbraentitled Improvisation to manifest this quality of free,formally untrammelled growth to perfection: and so it iswith the Improvisation for violin and orchestra, Op. 89,composed in 1956 for the Louisville Orchestra ofLouisville, Kentucky, under that orchestra's enlightenedpolicy of commissioning, giving the premi?¿re andsubsequently issuing commercial recordings of new worksfrom leading composers around the world. The worldpremi?¿re was given by Sidney Harth, the orchestra'sleader, during the Louisville Orchestra's 1957 season,under the baton of their conductor Robert Whitney. TheImprovisation is in fact a substantially recomposed version,using a smaller orchestra, of a Fantasia for violin andorchestra that Rubbra had composed in the mid-1930s buthad held back owing to dissatisfaction with its shape andscoring. The Improvisation opens with an extended solofor the violin in which, accompanied only by a timpaniroll,the soloist expounds the main material, growing freelyand spontaneously from the calm initial phrase and itsanswer, which between them immediately span nine of thetwelve pitches of the chromatic scale. This long, eloquently'speaking' line immediately sets the scene for a discourseat once searching, serious and passionate. This opening istaken over basically unchanged from the original Fantasia,but Rubbra was now able to build upon its implicationswith a greater sense of direction.
Thus the violin proceeds to explore several of themotivic elements of the line in partnership with theorchestra, in a combination of variation and thematicmetamorphosis. The mood is mainly meditative, but apt atany moment to flare up in sudden ardour or slip intodreamy fantasy. The tempo quickens into a brief, furiousAllegro, then subsides to the initial Lento with a return tothe opening theme. As a new, contrasting melody, markedmolto cantabile, in suave conjunct motion rather than thewider leaps of the initial theme, takes over the proceedings,this section develops into a kind of ardent slow movement.
Before long, however, the stormy faster music returns andrushes, with solo writing of virtuoso standard, into thework's climactic outburst, with the opening theme onwinds heard against a reiterated polonaise rhythm in collegno strings. The contrasting theme, majesticallysostenuto on full strings, leads into a brooding coda wherethe violin rhapsodizes against chorale-like wind chords.
The opening theme is heard for a last time shared betweenharp and violin, with a closing reminiscence on solo horn.
Rubbra's affection for the music of the Elizabethansand Jacobeans is displayed in a different fashion in anotherwork whose title incorporates the term 'improvisation', theImprovisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby,Op. 50, of 1938-9. Farnaby (c.1563-1640) wrote manyvocal works but is most celebrated for his keyboard pieces.
Rubbra arranged five of these for a Haydn/Mozart-sizedorchestra, double woodwind, two horns, two trumpets,timpani and strings, at the request of his publishers, whoafter his first three symphonies desired a less complexwork that would be comparatively inexpensive to produceand might be easier to market to a wide audience. Rubbrahad in fact already demonstrated a knack for workingcreatively with early-music materials, notably in thescherzo of his First Symphony, founded on the old Frenchdance Perigourdine. While some of the Improvisationsadhere quite faithfully to the modest dimensions of theiroriginals, even observing Farnaby's literal section-repeats,others use them as a jumping-off point for furtherexploration of the material in a more contemporarycontext, after the manner perhaps of Stravinsky'sPulcinella. The opening Farnaby's Conceit is a case inpoint. The spell-binding His Dreame, with its hauntingoboe solo and muted strings, establishes a magical sense ofconnexion between Farnaby's day and the English pastoralschool of Rubbra's own time. The glinting, capricious HisHumour breaks up its tunes all over the orchestra in teasingscherzo-style. A solo viola then intones the tune of Loth toDepart, one of Farnaby's best-known pieces, whose air ofmelancholic elegy gains a cumulative intensity fromRubbra's setting. The final movement, Tell me, Daphne,treats the eponymous tune to a series of six short andsimple variations of which the last, marked Allegrobucolico, forms a cheerful finale.
The violin Improvisation of 1956 sometimes soundslike a study for a full-scale concerto, and indeed only threeyears later Rubbra completed his Violin Concerto, Op.
103. While his previous concertos for piano and for violahad been designated by key, the Violin Concerto disclosesno 'official' overall tonality (in fact the first and lastmovements are fairly clearly centred on A and the centralmovement on F and C). As his music evolved Rubbrabecame increasingly interested in the power of particularintervals to govern the harmony, while remaining firmlywithin the orbit of diatonic tonality. The work was firstperformed in February 1960 by the violinist Endre Wolfwith the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by RudolfSchwarz. As in all the works on this disc, Rubbra'sorchestration is notable for its range of colour and timbreand his precise judgement of weight and texture, so that thesolo instrument is never masked.
The first movement is one of Rubbra's finest sonatastructures, while showing continuous organic growthacross the formal divisions of exposition, development andrecapitulation. The stern opening theme, which has beencompared in rhythm and interval-structure to that ofShostakovich's Fifth Symphony, is soon contrasted with asweeter, more aspiring theme in woodwind, and these twoideas, immediately taken up by the violin, provide most ofthe movement's material. The formal second subject, in Dmajor, could be viewed as an extension of the woodwindtheme. There is a quality of passion and seriousness aboutthe music which is reminiscent of the Bloch andShostakovich concertos, but also a very English quality ofserene joyfulness which is very much Rubbra's hallmark.
The development section flows into the recapitulationwithout obvious break, and the searching cadenza appearsvery late in the movement, just leaving time for a fewabrupt final bars.
Rubbra entitled the slow movement Poema; though nospecific poem is indicated, it seems to have a spiritualkinship with the slow movement of his Sixth Symphony(1954), entitled Canto, and which was inspired by linesfrom a poem of Leopardi co