Double play

Rubbra: Symphony No 9; Morning Watch, BBC National Chorus & Orchestra of Wales / Richard Hickox (Chandos CHAN 9441)

For those with ears to hear, there is a challenge in the music of Edmund Rubbra. It has to do with the meaning of the word "originality". On the surface, there is nothing strikingly new in his music. His roots in Vaughan Williams and Holst (his teacher), in Tudor polyphony and madrigal, are plain enough; occasionally there are parallels with Howells, or the early Tippett - hardly radical for 1972, the year the Sinfonia Sacra (Symphony No 9) appeared.

But if by "original" you mean "authentically personal", then there are few more original British composers. Both The Morning Watch (a setting of the mystic poet Henry Vaughan) and the Ninth Symphony - a fusion of Bachian gospel narrative, with chorales, and symphonic form - clearly spring from a faith that never stopped enquiring, and for which glamourising, sentimentality or any other form of self-advertisement were simply unthinkable. The music pursues its ends with calm assurance - unremarkable, you might think; then a veil seems to lift and the expression becomes luminous, as in the quiet counterpoint of descending scale-figures at the heart of The Morning Watch, or the contralto's depiction of Mary Magdalene's meeting with the risen Christ in the Sinfonia Sacra.

These moments are deeply touching; and they bear witness to religious conviction with a human directness today's "faith minimalists" often aspire to, but rarely even approach. Unlike them, Rubbra lets us see the searching, the striving too, even the doubt - in the long, probing introduction to The Morning Watch, or in the hushed, anguished setting of Jesus' last words at the start of the symphony: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

Richard Hickox comes into his own in such moments. His approach to pacing in Sinfonia Sacra is more oratorio-like than symphonic, but the high points of the story and beautiful chorale harmonisations lodge themselves in the memory - credit too to Della Jones for her eloquent, dignified narration. The women of the BBC National Chorus of Wales strain a little in the heights of Rubbra's choral writing, but the climaxes still glow, and the part- writing flows with admirable clarity. The recordings are atmospheric and warm in tone - just right for this music, and these performances. SJ

A little late in the day, but Edmund Rubbra may be about to find his audience. Somehow or other he passed us by. He was good but he was unfashionable - neither "different" nor radical enough to draw attention in the post- war years. He kept the home fires burning - blazing actually. But he moved (or so it appeared) in unmysterious ways, he used the traditional tools of the trade - large forms, modal harmonies, Old Testament rhetoric. School of Holst and Vaughan Williams. The English Choral tradition is alive and well and unrepentant in both these splendid scores.

But get beyond the familiar, listen, really listen, to The Morning Watch, feel the ineffability, the inexorability, of its orchestral introduction. In just two or three pages of score, Rubbra shows you the light at the end of the world. But the drums of war turn his pilgrimage into a deathly processional and out of that roars the chorus - "O joys! Infinite sweetness!". It's both shocking and inevitable, as masterful in its setting up as in its execution - a natural symphonist's handiwork.

Rubbra's music is all about spiritual journeying - from somewhere to somewhere: direction, development, evolution. How rare that feeling is these days. With his Ninth Symphony, a choral symphony (I'm no great believer in coincidences), Bach's Passions are the source of both drama and architecture. But the tone is symphonic. The narrative is in the narration, with Della Jones here embracing Rubbra's wonderfully creative (and subtly contemporary) recitatives with operatic relish. From sepulchre to the heavens, the word-painting (and its attendant underscoring) is nothing if not explicit - a shroud of trombones for the "weeping" Mary Magdalene, a haze of violins, a wisp of vapourising woodwind for the ascension - but somehow or other it never sounds second-hand. At one point (significantly, the point at which Jesus appears to his disciples), Rubbra even manages to make a brief departure to spoken text sound original. Catholic hymns are points of release on this journey, Protestant chorales simply clarify (the opposite poles of Western Christian tradition united). In the closing sequence, tight, bright harmonies chime in the Latin hymn "Viri Galilaei", clearing the air for something of significance to us all: that chorale from the St Matthew Passion.

The BBC National Chorus of Wales is all you would expect of the pedigree, the NOW (riding high now on the directorship of Mark Wigglesworth) makes the most of Rubbra's illuminating scoring. Hickox is, as ever, a most persuasive advocate. Complement this disc with the first in the series - Symphonies Nos 4, 10 and 11 (on CHAN 9401) - and you'll be eagerly anticipating the next. ES

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