Hyperion Records

Viola Concerto in A major, Op 75
1952; first performed by William Primrose with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Malcolm Sergent on 15 April 1953 at the Royal Festival Hall, London

'Rubbra & Walton: Viola Concertos' (CDA67587)
Rubbra & Walton: Viola Concertos
Movement 1: Introduzione quasi una Fantasia
Movement 2: Molto vivace
Movement 3: Collana musicale: Andante moderato

Viola Concerto in A major, Op 75
Rubbra’s concerto became the first in a triptych (the others are for piano and violin), written at a crucial time, the 1950s. He had just converted to Roman Catholicism and become a lecturer and tutor at Oxford University, but his quarter-century of marriage was entering a stormy period, and powerful underlying emotions affect the concertos in fascinatingly different ways. The leading viola virtuoso William Primrose commissioned works for his instrument from Rubbra, and also from Darius Milhaud and Peter Racine Fricker. Rubbra played his concerto through to his fellow-composer and closest friend Gerald Finzi in late June 1952; the premiere, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Malcolm Sargent, was at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 15 April 1953. There was very soon another, seemingly better performance conducted by the ever-young Beecham, the soloist being Frederick Riddle (who was also Walton’s favourite performer for his concerto). In October 1959 Rubbra wrote in a letter: ‘I am off to America on the 31st. Primrose is giving four performances of the Viola Concerto with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; and they’ve invited me over—paying all expenses!’

Edmund Rubbra sounded new musical depths after 1950, above all in his sixth symphony, and there are musical connections between that work and the viola concerto composed a year earlier, in 1952. In particular, a motif with a falling fifth, fundamental to the symphony, is a good deal in evidence in the concerto’s scherzo. At the start, its first movement also anticipates two symphonic openings from later in Rubbra’s life: a harp note and deep tremolando C look to the seventh symphony (1957), while its deep solo stringed instrument over an even lower bass is reproduced another seventeen years later at the start of the tenth symphony. As both composing colleague and former music-reviewer, Rubbra would have been well aware of Walton’s viola concerto, but it is surely pure coincidence that in both works the solo line opens with a rising minor third.

This opening, too, is predominantly thoughtful, but where Walton becomes daringly impulsive, Rubbra, for all his frequent insistence that composing was like improvisation, builds a long line with supreme skill. As so often with him, a livelier section begins about two minutes in—one can be no more exact, for one of his characteristics, sensed more clearly in the concerto’s finale, is the overlapping of sections like the links in a chain or necklace. The new one brings a further anticipation of the seventh symphony, this time of dancing, Tchaikovsky-like music at the same structural point. After a brief but violent storm has brewed up and blown over, one turn of phrase five minutes in is like a literal quotation from Tchaikovsky. The sober atmosphere, soon returning, is more than once dispelled by something almost frantic, but eventually prevails and is finally underlined in the cadenza. Despite the Elgarian precedent, the idea of couching the soloist’s traditional showpiece entirely over a brooding timpani-roll was daring and dramatic and ran the risk of alienating potential performers.

Neither Walton nor Rubbra would have wished to avoid some echo of perhaps the century’s greatest symphonist—Sibelius. Rubbra’s scherzo sets out in a Lemminkäinen mood, with the soloist first joining in the heavyweight dance, then wending his own quieter way like Berlioz’s viola-playing Harold shunning the Orgy of Brigands: as well he might, given some quite outlandish goings-on in the background, where sinister birds seem to be rehearsing for an appearance in a Hitchcock film (in the sixth symphony they reappear, now totally happy!). Though Rubbra always uses the percussion instruments with great economy, here he lets the side-drum gear itself up for its big moments in the seventh symphony. Near the end we meet someone he called his ‘far-distant Spanish ancestor’. That colourful though purely imaginary person, in evidence ever since an early violin sonata, seems to be over on a flying visit—perhaps for the 1953 Coronation, since he is also around at the opening of the BBC’s commission for the great event, Ode to the Queen. One could be hearing one of the Spanish pieces from Façade, and there is almost a feeling of parody, comparable to Bartók’s send-up of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in his Concerto for Orchestra. Like most Rubbra scherzos, this is for the most part uneasy music, the product of a very full mind.

Rubbra said his finale, a ‘collana musicale’ or musical necklace, was based entirely on material from the viola’s first thirteen bars, making up ‘nine interrelated meditations … without a central theme, but linked together in spirit’. The boundaries of these ‘meditations’ are often blurred by his overlapping of sections, and one may then perceive rather a gradually changing flux, within an atmosphere of intense concentration.

Meditations I and II are long and slow, minor then major, sombre then serene, and both strikingly beautiful (‘from the heart it came, may it speak to people’s hearts’, in Beethoven’s words). Another instrument Rubbra used with as much tact as economy was the harp, sometimes giving it music that suggested a clock ticking life away. That is so in the extremely still music that ends Meditation I, for viola and harp over the barest string accompaniment—it suggests someone straining his perceptions almost to the point of pain as he tries to recall something infinitely precious that is about to disappear. The rhythm changes to 6/8 (Meditation III), but the mood is still sombre, and after about seven minutes we find another Rubbra fingerprint, a series of drum beats that could be saying ‘All flesh is as grass’. Meditation IV brings a milder ‘memento mori’ from the harp, with a lovely added clarinet line that looks forward to a great moment in the slow movement of the sixth symphony. Quite abruptly (Meditation V) the music breaks into a brisker (though ephemeral) 6/8: we seem to be into a typical Rubbra form—slow first half, quick second half, in effect two movements rolled into one, a scheme he would return to in the sixth symphony. But the quick music all too soon turns back toward the minor mode and subsides (Meditation VI). In Meditation VII Old Mortality harp again seems to pluck off the moments one by one. This varied restatement of II is followed (in Meditation VIII) by another version of III, a new touch being a texture that figures in the slow movements of the preceding and ensuing symphonies (Nos 5 and 6); the entire string section plays slowly moving chords, like a cloudscape that has changed each time one looks at it. A final flurry of life (Meditation IX) looks back to a theme that opened the upbeat finale of the war-time fourth symphony; then it had been a public matter, here the composer is coming to terms with some private issue, perhaps of reassurance. And here, at least, the soloist can end on a flourish!

from notes by Leo Black © 2007

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Details for CDA67587 track 6
Molto vivace
Recording date
17 September 2006
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Rubbra & Walton: Viola Concertos (CDA67587)
    Disc 1 Track 6
    Release date: June 2007
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