British Modern composer Sir Edmund Rubbra [1901-1986] is mainly known as a symphonist but he also wrote four string quartets. These are usually about 15 years apart, so he had a lot of time to think about the next one. He is a master of intangible feelings; feelings that take you somewhere you’ve not been before. These moments permeate throughout the quartets.
The First String Quartet is from 1933, and was revised in 1946. It consists of three movements.
Rubbra is capable of creating long melodies and the quartet has many fine examples. These melodies develop from the opening, which is a harmonised ascending phrase. A new passage is questioning as the ensemble wrap themselves around the melody with pizzicato. A previous theme is reintroduced, very powerful indeed with strong rhythmic pulses delineating the melodic sections. Now a return to the opening feeling has the ensemble very much in the background as the two violins investigate the material further. A dance-like section ensues with further rhythmic interjections. A crescendo and slight pause lead to a recapitulation of the first melody, slightly more energised this time. The sweeping phrases move into a much gentler and more thoughtful version of the opening theme. This is followed by an energised passage which drifts into a quiet section to finish on a sustained chord.
The second movement, marked lento, opens with a lament, featuring solo violin accompanied only by the cello. Now a repeated motif that really drives the movement forward with strong harmonised lines. The volume and the theme intensify before drifting into a beautiful quiet place – this is very evocative. The composer is able to sustain the mood for many minutes as the intensity grows before again drifting back to a sustained period of beautiful harmonised lines, like walking. This period of melodic lines is slowly developed into a mood of a single violin preaching over the accompanying ensemble. This is very sparse territory at a minimal volume, and extremely tasteful, with poignant violins wafting over a sustained quiet passage. A new set of melodies unfolds and as we near the end, one lonely violin takes the movement out.
The third and final movement starts optimistically at a vivace tempo which is sustained, with constant dense interplay, continuing to the end. All instruments are very busy in this short movement, which features much forward impetus. Some of the melodies are variants on those of the first two movements. A gentle passage doesn’t last but drifts into a tempo again. The end is a surprise, with a strong melody bringing it to a sharp conclusion,
Regarding availability, I have the four works on a 2-CD set by the Sterling Quartet on Conifer Classics and can recommend them. They are reasonably priced. I am aware of another complete set but have not heard it. Naxos have a CD of 1, 3 and 4.
Listenability: One of a very fine set of works.