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

I have often wondered when Rubbra’s complete songs might appear on disc. Some can be found dotted around the catalogue. For example, the much-lamented Tracey Chadwell accompanied by Danielle Perrett recorded in 1998 for ASV Rubbra’s songs for voice and harp (review of a reissue). This disc includes songs never recorded, such as No Swan so fine, or songs hardly ever heard; and I should immediately declare a personal interest.

As Jonathan Clinch writes quite correctly in his excellent notes, Rubbra “is principally celebrated as symphonist”. I was his pupil, and almost in my first lesson he asked me to write a song because it would “focus the idea of line”. He then suggested that I take a favourite song and write variations on it. I chose his Orpheus with his lute. He kindly thought, which was typical of him, that my version was better. I often sang the oft-heard Rune of hospitality, Hymn to the Virgin and The Night (one of the very finest of all English songs, also set by Warlock).Those are early pieces from the 1920s, before Rubbra’s 1st Symphony or 1st Quartet. Only some fifty years later did he revise them and decide that some were ripe for publication. Some, however, were never submitted. I have a manuscript photocopy and have performed, first in 1975, Who is Silvia and The Mystery, neither of which, he told me at the time, had been done before. The beautiful Nod is not even included in the normal catalogue of his works.

Rubbra was very well read. His choice of poetry ranged from the 7th century T’ang Dynasty in The Jade Mountain, medieval English words through to Shakespeare, for example It was a lover and his lass or Shelley’s A widow bird sate mourning, and to poets little known now like Murdoch Maclean who wrote A Duan of Barra. Rubbra was composing songs well into his seventies. When I visited him in 1974, he had just finished what was to be his last song, a setting of Milton’s Fly Envious Time, which he squeakily sang to me but otherwise I have never heard it. It is inscribed ‘In memoriam Gerald Finzi’, one of the closest friends, whose death really disturbed him in 1956.

It may surprise you to know that Rubbra set the Salve Regina for Alfred Deller. I sang it as a countertenor in Rubbra’s retirement concert at the Guildhall School of Music, as well as his rather severe Three Psalms originally penned for Kathleen Ferrier – robust settings written from a strong religious commitment. By 1947, he joined the Roman Catholic church. Indeed, he seemed to regard secular and sacred texts as all one when he composed songs. Holst, his teacher at the Royal College, and before him Stanford, encouraged careful reading and understanding of poetry as a prelude to setting it.

Rubbra liked writing for harp. It accompanies Jesukin, A Hymn to the Virgin and The Jade Mountain (a setting of five poems translated from the Chinese by Witter Bynner). His interest in the Far East and in Buddhism shines through this atmospheric score composed in 1962. And just a few years earlier Rubbra’s Piano Concerto had opened with a cadenza inspired by a raga he heard played by a Pakistani musician. The wonderfully rich 1955 settings of Two Sonnets by William Alabaster (also a Roman Catholic convert) include the viola, and Dear Liza is a clever, humorous duet. There is much variety in this music, gained through the diversity of the chosen texts.

Rubbra had a very personal musical language, and you hear in these songs how it developed. The pre-war songs are often modal, seemingly simple, like Rosa Mundi, and economical in accompaniment, with little vocal display or ornament. If you detect a touch of Debussy, perhaps in a song like In dark weather,it is probably more the influence of Rubbra’s first teacher, Cyril Scott. But as you work through into the 1950s and 1960s, the harmonic language introduces chromaticism and sudden key shifts, the counterpoint increases. The melodies become more ornate, and Rubbra’s trademark three against two rhythms become more common, as in the Salve Regina (performed here, by the way, by a baritone). It may be unsurprising that these later songs, after the Three Psalms, have never really taken off.

All six contributors give poised and expressive performances, and show great affection for these perfect miniatures. On the surface, the music may often appear simple – less is more was Rubbra’s way – but in practice a high level of musicianship is needed to make the wonderful lyrical lines seem natural. They often can encompass a very wide range, as in Invocation to Spring.

When it comes to interpretation and tempo, I find the evocative Rosa Mundi too steady. It was a lover and his lass is too slow. One of Rubbra’s most ‘unbuttoned’ songs, it is rather laboured here. The Mystery, on the other hand, needs to be even more sensitively handled and more intense. But apart from those personal caveats, these are wonderful voices. They are beautifully recorded and perceptively accompanied, as you might expect, by Iain Burnside.

I cannot help but feel that it might have been preferable to have the music presented in stricter chronological order. Whereas the Two Songs Op. 4 are on adjoining tracks, curiously the Op. 8 and Op. 13 are split, some tracks apart.

These songs cover a significant period in English music, from c.1920 to 1974, so the disc is a must for all lovers of English song for their beauty, the performances, and the opportunity to discover a repertoire which has for far too long been too little known.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (February 2023)

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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)