Modern music: Rubbra

Rubbra was essentially a conservative English composer, affected by his working-class roots and Buddhism. He also participated in the rediscovery of Renaissance music in England, as well as composing some pieces on these themes. All in all, his compositional output is quite representative of his time and place.

What really sets Rubbra apart for me is the sincerity & conviction of his musical expression. He also takes a more polyphonic approach to orchestral sonority, motivated partly by his interest in Renaissance music. Even when unusual, his technique serves to underscore the melodic expression. The music never strays far from tonality.

The Rubbra discography is growing rather quickly now, so there are several good recordings available. Although I've certainly benefited from listening to many of his major works, the one piece which I continue to hear regularly is the Violin Concerto, Op. 103. There is no technical reason for this, rather it is simply a piece which speaks directly to me. This recording is decent, but not exemplary:

Rubbra: Violin Concerto / Viola Concerto
Tasmin Little / Rivka Golani / Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - Vernon Handley
Conifer 51225

The performance on Unicorn is as good, although the pairing is undesirable.

Along with the currently available recordings, a complete cycle of symphonies is planned on the Chandos label. This should be rewarding. At this point, while I have enjoyed Rubbra's symphonic output, none of the symphonies captivates me as a whole, over repeated listening. Perhaps that will change.

We've also been treated to a recent release of Rubbra's 4 String Quartets. In this case, the performance is thoroughly recommendable:

Rubbra: The Four String Quartets
Sterling String Quartet
Conifer 51260

These works continue to grow on me, although I cannot say that any one stands out above the others. Two of the quartets are now recorded on Dutton Laboratories by a less experienced ensemble.

See also: Eric Schissel's thoughts on Rubbra.

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Todd M. McComb
19 June 1996