Rubbra The Jade Mountain Chandos

Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986)
The Jade Mountain – Songs
Lucy Crowe (soprano), Claire Barnett-Jones (mezzo-soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
Timothy Ridout (viola), Catrin Finch (harp), Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. February 2022, Potton Hall, Suffolk
Texts included
Chandos CHAN20182 [72]

Rubbra’s songs haven’t enjoyed the same attention as his symphonic and choral music so this latest Chandos release will come as welcome news to those who have, hitherto, subsisted on the much-lamented Tracey Chadwell’s ASV release of his songs with harp (review), more recently reissued on Lyrita (review). There is some overlap with this disc but surprisingly little as Rubbra’s songs range across his compositional life, from 1921 to 1974, though the majority date from the 1920s and 30s. 

Cyril Scott remained a pivotal influence on Rubbra for his advanced harmonies and interest in Orientalism. Both elements are reflected to some degree in the songs though so too are encoded tropes familiar to lovers of British song – such as the bell tolls in Rosa mundi, which might have derived from Vaughan Williams, the brother-in-law of R.O. Morris, who taught Rubbra harmony and counterpoint. Rubbra certainly showed an early affiliation with folkloric influence, as he shows in the Cradle Song, but it’s laced with occasional dissonances and it’s worth pointing out that this is an original setting of his, not a folk song as such. 

Rubbra’s accompaniments are perceptive and apt and never settle into routine. A pianist himself, he knew precisely what would work and sound, and he never over-stretches. Of the melody line itself, sometimes I’m more uncertain. The earliest songs, such as Who is Silvia? which was written in 1923 have a somewhat unequal distribution between the melody (lacking distinction) and the accompaniment (relatively inventive). Still, Rubbra was still only into his early 20s. He’s most VW-like in Out in the Dark where the influence was also possibly cultivated by another of his teachers, Holst. 

Rubbra also sought the modal, the lullaby and the Gaelic and there are, again, examples of each here. A Widow Bird sate mourning is both modal and chromatic as booklet writer Jonathan Clinch notes whereas The Night is a lullaby, somewhat blandly sung by Marcus Farnsworth. I’ve heard him elsewhere and he can be a persuasive and sensitive singer but I don’t think Rubbra is necessarily his metier; though he’s invariably mellifluous, he can be subject to plosive outbursts, as in the very early setting, Nod. Mezzo Claire Barnett-Jones, whom I’ve not heard before, makes more of an impression and takes declamatory opportunities in the second of the Two Songs, Op.22 where she brings some welcome gleam and assertiveness – and a necessary acidity – to her tone. 

The best-known singer is the splendid Lucy Crowe, who takes all the soprano songs but even she is taxed by occasional demands such as in the case of In Dark Weather, which takes her high and which is by some distance the most clearly impressionistic setting. She sings the whimsical trills of No Swan So Fine, dedicated to Sophie Wyss, with exemplary wit. Rubbra dedicated his last song Fly Envious Time in memoriam to his old friend, Gerald Finzi, and unusually, but aptly, it ends in a strongly affirmative spirit.  

Violist Timothy Ridout adds lustre to the disc notably in the diptych of Two Sonnets by William Alabaster, which date from 1955 and which attain a rare VW-like eloquence in Ridout’s hands.  The Jade Mountain (1962) sets five songs from the T’ang Dynasty in translations from the Chinese by Witter Bynner, where Catrin Finch is harpist. Crowe and Finch are faster in the first song than Chadwell and Danielle Perrett and more vividly recorded. Here, in eight or so minutes, Rubbra can distil mood in the most refractive but precise way, whether in the balladlike Buddhist influence of the melancholic last song or the autumnal refinement of the third. The decades-earlier A Hymn to the Virgin evokes a Renaissance feel, and is programmed separately from the other examples from Op.13. 

The Three Psalms. Op.61 were made famous by Kathleen Ferrier who recorded them for Decca with Ernst Lush and performed and broadcast them often. They remain probably his best-known songs moving from dark austerity through ecstasy to a joyful affirmative strength. Incidentally Rubbra recorded this set with Owen Brannigan, and the recording survives. He also accompanied other singers in a few other songs. Maybe one day they can be commercially issued.   

The bonne-bouche is an amusingly silly duet for mezzo and baritone called Dear Liza (you’ll know it when you hear it).

Incidentally in her recording Chadwell is always accompanied by harp but in Chandos’ disc, other than in specific cases, such as the succinct five-song cycle The Jade Mountain, the articulate and idiomatic pianist Iain Burnside is preferred.

This disc confines itself to songs for voice and one accompanying instrument, whether piano or harp, so if you want Amoretti, for tenor and string quartet, for instance, you’ll need to look elsewhere. 

Otherwise, Rubbra’s corpus of solo songs has been sensitively and thoughtfully performed here, and finely recorded in Potton Hall. They are not as distinctive as the symphonies or string quartets or the choral works but reflect a disparate range of influences that should appeal to the composer’s admirers.

Jonathan Woolf   

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Rosa Mundi, Op. 2 (1921)
Cradle Song, Op. 8 No. 1 (1923)
Nod (1921)
Orpheus with his Lute, Op. 8 No. 2 (1923)
Who is Silvia?, Op. 8 No. 3 (1923)
Out in the dark, Op. 13 No. 1 (1925)
It was a lover, Op. 13 No. 3 (1925)
The Night, Op. 14 (1925)
Rune of Hospitality, Op. 15 (1925 rev 1970)
A Duan of Barra, Op. 20 (1928)
A Widow Bird Sate Mourning, Op. 28 (1930)
A Prayer, Op. 17 No. 1 (1926)
Two Songs, Op. 22 No. 1, Take, O take those lips away No. 2, Why so pale and wan? (1928)
In Dark Weather, Op. 33 (1932)
Invocation to Spring, Op. 17 No. 2 (1926)
Two Sonnets by William Alabaster, Op. 87 I. Upon the Crucifix II. On the Reed of Our Lord’s Passion (1955)
Two Songs, Op. 4 No. 1, The Mystery No. 2, Jesukin (1922)
A Hymn to the Virgin, Op. 13 No. 2 (1925)
The Jade Mountain, Op. 116 I. A Night Thought on Terrace Tower II. On Hearing Her Play the Harp III. An Autumn Night Message IV. A Song on the Southern River V. Farewell to a Japanese Buddhist Priest bound Homeward (1962)
Nocturne, Op. 54 (1941)
Salve, Regina, Op. 119 (1962)
No Swan So Fine, Op. 91 (1956)
Fly Envious Time, Op. 148 (1974)
Three Psalms, Op. 61 No. 1, Psalm 6 No. 2, Psalm 23 No. 3, Psalm 150 (1946)
Dear Liza, Op. 7 (c.1924 pub 1928)