EDMUND RUBBRA – Master of Abstraction – SQs 1-4

British composer Sir Edmund Rubbra [1901-1986] is mainly known as a symphonist but he also wrote four string quartets, 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.

SQ No. 1 is a very strong first quartet. Rubbra is capable of creating long melodies and the opening has many fine examples. These melodies develop from the opening, into the murky waters of his developed themes. The second movement, very long, opens with a lament, featuring solo violin accompanied only by the cello. He then invokes a repeated motif that really drives the movement forward. The volume and the theme intensify before drifting into a beautiful quiet place. Very evocative. The composer is able to sustain this mood for many minutes. The following passage brings together all four instruments in a serious manner before drifting to an appealing conclusion. The third and final movement starts optimistically at a vivace tempo which is sustained, with constant dense interplay, continuing to the end.

SQ No. 2 is in four movements. The eerie opening gives way to a powerful section. There is a recurring motif that drives this movement forward. After a time, the writing becomes dense and orchestral, before returning to pure melodies, which drift until the end.

SQ No. 3 is in three movements and opens with a haunting, lyrical melody. It’s already taken me somewhere as I write these words. The first movement becomes almost orchestral as all of the instruments soar to the top of their range. It makes for a very shimmering sound. It’s another one of those ‘you can reach out and touch it’ sections. It continues this mood and then descends into a passage of dissonance to conclude. The second movement is an adagio with emotional links to the Beethoven Late Quartets. Fantastic harmonies support the first violin, and the cello is also prominent as a source of melody. The third and last movement is up-tempo and brief; it represents Rubbra at his most pastoral.

SQ No. 4 is dedicated to the memory of a friend who had recently died. Containing only two movements, it commences with an appealing section as the melodies evoke a walk through a forest. There are many gentle stops upon the way and manifold little skips and surprisingly uplifting sections. It ends on one of these positive moments. The second movement is a singularly beautiful tribute to the lost friend. The mood is consistent throughout, with long heartfelt melodies. It is somewhat reminiscent of Arvo Part, although it was written many years before Part became prominent.

To me, Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 are simpler and slightly more approachable than Nos. 3 and 4 but ultimately, they are all magnificent. I find it amazing that Rubbra can conjure up so many fascinating moods. No wonder he was knighted!

Regarding availability, I have these four works on a 2-CD set by the Sterling SQ 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 set of 1, 3 and 4.

The Naxos is on Spotify and some of Rubbra’s quartets on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: A wonderful set.


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