About this Recording
8.557591 - RUBBRA: Violin Concerto, Op. 103 / Improvisations, Op. 89
English  German 

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, concertos and quartets, the unique compositional gifts of the British composer Edmund Rubbra sometimes seemed at variance with the large sectional contrasts and structural symmetries of the sonata-based forms he composed in. Rubbra drew perhaps his profoundest inspiration from the polyphonic music of the sixteenth century and the Baroque eras – he was a natural composer of vocal motets, of large, breathing spans of counterpoint. Although a subtle harmonist, the basic unit of his music is the line, whether for a voice or an instrument, flexibly moving against and in consort with other lines. Growth happens in the way these lines extend themselves, growth of a peculiarly organic, alwaysdeveloping kind, more resembling the inner life and progressive metamorphosis of a plant than the formal architecture of, say, a Beethovenian sonata-movement. It is no coincidence that the first movement of Rubbra’s Piano Concerto carries the botanical title ‘Corymbus’, suggesting a shape peculiar to certain plant forms, nor that he wrote one of the most valuable short manuals on counterpoint in the twentieth century.

One might, therefore, expect any work that Rubbra entitled Improvisation to manifest this quality of free, formally untrammelled growth to perfection: and so it is with the Improvisation for violin and orchestra, Op. 89, composed in 1956 for the Louisville Orchestra of Louisville, Kentucky, under that orchestra’s enlightened policy of commissioning, giving the première and subsequently issuing commercial recordings of new works from leading composers around the world. The world première was given by Sidney Harth, the orchestra’s leader, during the Louisville Orchestra’s 1957 season, under the baton of their conductor Robert Whitney. The Improvisation is in fact a substantially recomposed version, using a smaller orchestra, of a Fantasia for violin and orchestra that Rubbra had composed in the mid-1930s but had held back owing to dissatisfaction with its shape and scoring. The Improvisation opens with an extended solo for the violin in which, accompanied only by a timpaniroll, the soloist expounds the main material, growing freely and spontaneously from the calm initial phrase and its answer, which between them immediately span nine of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. This long, eloquently ‘speaking’ line immediately sets the scene for a discourse at once searching, serious and passionate. This opening is taken over basically unchanged from the original Fantasia, but Rubbra was now able to build upon its implications with a greater sense of direction.

Thus the violin proceeds to explore several of the motivic elements of the line in partnership with the orchestra, in a combination of variation and thematic metamorphosis. The mood is mainly meditative, but apt at any moment to flare up in sudden ardour or slip into dreamy fantasy. The tempo quickens into a brief, furious Allegro, then subsides to the initial Lento with a return to the opening theme. As a new, contrasting melody, marked molto cantabile, in suave conjunct motion rather than the wider 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 and rushes, with solo writing of virtuoso standard, into the work’s climactic outburst, with the opening theme on winds heard against a reiterated polonaise rhythm in col legno strings. The contrasting theme, majestically sostenuto on full strings, leads into a brooding coda where the violin rhapsodizes against chorale-like wind chords. The opening theme is heard for a last time shared between harp and violin, with a closing reminiscence on solo horn.

Rubbra’s affection for the music of the Elizabethans and Jacobeans is displayed in a different fashion in another work whose title incorporates the term ‘improvisation’, the Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby, Op. 50, of 1938-9. Farnaby (c.1563-1640) wrote many vocal works but is most celebrated for his keyboard pieces. Rubbra arranged five of these for a Haydn/Mozart-sized orchestra, double woodwind, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings, at the request of his publishers, who after his first three symphonies desired a less complex work that would be comparatively inexpensive to produce and might be easier to market to a wide audience. Rubbra had in fact already demonstrated a knack for working creatively with early-music materials, notably in the scherzo of his First Symphony, founded on the old French dance Périgourdine. While some of the Improvisations adhere quite faithfully to the modest dimensions of their originals, even observing Farnaby’s literal section-repeats, others use them as a jumping-off point for further exploration of the material in a more contemporary context, after the manner perhaps of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. The opening Farnaby’s Conceit is a case in point. The spell-binding His Dreame, with its haunting oboe solo and muted strings, establishes a magical sense of connexion between Farnaby’s day and the English pastoral school of Rubbra’s own time. The glinting, capricious His Humour breaks up its tunes all over the orchestra in teasing scherzo-style. A solo viola then intones the tune of Loth to Depart, one of Farnaby’s best-known pieces, whose air of melancholic elegy gains a cumulative intensity from Rubbra’s setting. The final movement, Tell me, Daphne, treats the eponymous tune to a series of six short and simple variations of which the last, marked Allegro bucolico, forms a cheerful finale.

The violin Improvisation of 1956 sometimes sounds like a study for a full-scale concerto, and indeed only three years later Rubbra completed his Violin Concerto, Op. 103. While his previous concertos for piano and for viola had been designated by key, the Violin Concerto discloses no ‘official’ overall tonality (in fact the first and last movements are fairly clearly centred on A and the central movement on F and C). As his music evolved Rubbra became increasingly interested in the power of particular intervals to govern the harmony, while remaining firmly within the orbit of diatonic tonality. The work was first performed in February 1960 by the violinist Endre Wolf with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rudolf Schwarz. As in all the works on this disc, Rubbra’s orchestration is notable for its range of colour and timbre and his precise judgement of weight and texture, so that the solo instrument is never masked.

The first movement is one of Rubbra’s finest sonata structures, while showing continuous organic growth across the formal divisions of exposition, development and recapitulation. The stern opening theme, which has been compared in rhythm and interval-structure to that of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, is soon contrasted with a sweeter, more aspiring theme in woodwind, and these two ideas, immediately taken up by the violin, provide most of the movement’s material. The formal second subject, in D major, could be viewed as an extension of the woodwind theme. There is a quality of passion and seriousness about the music which is reminiscent of the Bloch and Shostakovich concertos, but also a very English quality of serene joyfulness which is very much Rubbra’s hallmark. The development section flows into the recapitulation without obvious break, and the searching cadenza appears very late in the movement, just leaving time for a few abrupt final bars.

Rubbra entitled the slow movement Poema; though no specific poem is indicated, it seems to have a spiritual kinship with the slow movement of his Sixth Symphony (1954), entitled Canto, and which was inspired by lines from a poem of Leopardi concerning the restorative effects of a well-loved landscape. This musical ‘poem’ has two contrasted themes, expounded by the orchestra and taken up by the violin, but a powerful unity of mood: a gravely ecstatic quality of meditation. Calmo and sereno are characteristic markings, not seriously disturbed by the march-like tread of the central section, which issues in a calm dialogue between violin and flute. Only towards the end does a hint of drama emerge, in throbbing triplet writing and wide violin leaps, but eventually the solo line soars calmly, nightingale-like, into the upper air.

The finale has been called a country dance; certainly it makes clear allusion to folk-music and bagpipe drones. But this is a very sophisticated dance, teasingly irregular in its cross-rhythms and changes of metre and with a quality of blithe formality that harks back to the Farnaby Improvisations. The tonality here is a bright A major, but twice, the second time very near the end, a contrasting theme in the diametrically opposite tonal direction of E flat minor casts a brief, ambiguous shadow over the proceedings before this splendid concerto ends decisively in A major in the highest of spirits.

Malcolm MacDonald

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