Rubbra Choral Works
With this valuable new Rubbra anthology Christopher Robinson and his St John’s College Choir reinforces more than maintains the favourable impression left by previous instalments in their English Choral Music series for Naxos. They prove especially eloquent, humane advocates of the eight-part Missa Cantuariensis (composed, as its name suggests, for Canterbury Cathedral and first sung there in July 1946). We’ve long needed a top-notch digital recording of this, the first of Rubbra’s five Mass settings. Fortunately Robinson and company rise to the challenge admirably, not least in the exuberant concluding Gloria with its lung-burstingly high tessitura. We also get a thoroughly idiomatic rendering of the taut and imposing Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in A flat that Rubbra wrote two years later.
In the glorious Missa in honorem Sancti Dominici from 1949 (inspired by Rubbra’s own conversion to Roman Catholicism the previous year, on the feast day of St Dominic) our Cambridge group doesn’t quite match the sumptuous blend, miraculous unanimity or spine-tingling fervour displayed by James O’Donnell’s Westminster Cathedral Choir (to quote the composer: ‘…this is not austere music: it may seem emaciated in its printed appearance, but red blood runs through its veins!’). On the other hand, these newcomers sound wholly captivated (and profoundly moved) by the nine motets that make up the remarkable Op 72 Tenebrae (the first three dating from 1951, with the remainder following a decade later). Boasting an infinitely subtle harmonic and contrapuntal resource, these timeless, wonderfully compassionate settings of the responsories used during Matins on Maundy Thursday show Rubbra very much at the height of his powers, encompassing as they do an extraordinarily wide dramatic and expressive range (witness the anguished ‘Judas mercator pessimus’ with its jagged tritones, or those jaw-droppingly potent triadic harmonies in the central portion of ‘Una hora non potuistis’).
Robinson also gives us two instrumental bonuses in the shape of the characteristically rapt Meditation for organ, Op 79, and Bernard Rose’s transcription of the more substantial Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Cyril Scott (originally written for piano in 1950 to celebrate Scott’s 70th birthday). Throw in Naxos’s praiseworthy production-values and helpful presentation, and you have a both a notably rewarding collection as well as a bargain of the first order. Let’s hope we can look forward to further releases of comparable quality during 2001, Rubbra’s centenary year.'