Prom 9, Royal Albert Hall/Radio 3

Rubbra's ticking clock of eternity
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The Independent Culture

Had young Edmund Rubbra remained a Northampton railway clerk, instead of being welcomed to composing by his mentors Holst and Cyril Scott, a treasure trove would have been lost: a symphonic output to rival Vaughan Williams, Sib-elius and Shostakovich; delicate settings of Spenser, Hopkins, and St John of the Cross; oriental songs; brass band music; four Beethoven-fired quartets; five masses; and half a dozen concerto (or concertino) works positively drenched with pass-ion and beauty.

In celebration of the centenary of Rubbra's birth this year the Proms featured his Fourth Symphony, first performed here in 1942 under the composer's direction. Its repeated falling fifth and rising third – as forlorn and exposed as at least two other Fourths, Bruckner's and Franz Schmidt's – is one of the most beautiful and most germinal of openings. Here, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Richard Hickox, it seemed positively angelic; behind, patternings of brass and woodwind remained discreet – a ticking clock of eternity rather than the seeds of impending danger.

As it unfolds in long-sustained timescales, it provides perhaps the perfect example of Rubbra's use of modal contrapuntalism on a large scale. Yet italso suggests a terrifying drama, as if the expanses of the Eastern Front were clawing their way into an English drawing room. The orchestration is never ostentatious, but lucid and constantly powered: his employment of choric brass; the more vivid sectional contrasts of the tension-relieving central intermezzo; and not least, the link passages as handled by Hickox, such as low woodwind, trombones and double basses leading into a kind of panned-out Elizabethan pavan.

The tension returns with thegrave introduction to the finale: can one hear Holst, in the pianissimo opening violas, cellos and basses, gyrating in bare octaves below long-held horns and woodwind, whose mournful sustaining suggests a kind of Priestleyan time-warp, where planets seem to pause and the pace of things is almost indiscernible?

The NOW's almost rustic oboe and triple bassoons were among the many heroes of a gripping Elgar Second Symphony in the second half; while Ravel's Gershwinesque Piano Concerto (with Liberace-clad soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet) took on the added hues of a dazzling, impudent Stravinskian concerto for orchestra that never faltered from its opening éclat to its sizzling collapse.

This Prom will be rebroadcast today at 2pm on BBC Radio 3. Box office: 020-7589 8212. www.bbc.co.uk/proms

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