Prom 9: 27th July 2001- A RUBBRA SYMPHONY

Symphony No.4
Piano Concerto in G
Symphony No.2 in E flat

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Richard Hickox

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 July, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Of those British composers whose centenaries will be marked over the next two years, Edmund Rubbra has the most distinctive personality and depth of vision, his powerful yet unassertive integrity worlds away from the ethos of those who take it upon themselves to ’tell’ listeners what to think.

Listening to the serene yet purposeful discourse of the Fourth Symphony – the first Rubbra symphony to be heard at the Proms for twenty-one years – is to be reminded that a shared experience is about being drawn into the spirit of the music as it unfolds in time.

Rubbra is a master of musical process: the first movement’s intensifying harmonic terraces coming full-circle to the elevated opening theme; the intermezzo’s wistful gait, whose contrast in pulse preserves continuity of mood; and the finale’s striving towards a conclusion which transforms its brooding introduction into a triumphant assertion of liberty.

It’s unlikely that tonight’s listeners could sense the resolve that must have impressed those who witnessed the composer (in army uniform) direct the premiere at the 1942 Proms. This was no fault of Richard Hickox, whose interpretation was an all-round improvement on his recording [CHANDOS CHAN 9401] – melody and accompaniment was in well-nigh perfect accord in the opening pages; the whole work proceeding in the context of that ’deep serenity’ of which John Pickard spoke in his thoughtful programme note. This was a welcome and timely revival.

Ravel’s G major concerto followed in not especially apposite contrast. Jean-Yves Thibaudet has evolved a chiselled delicacy of tone that too often confuses subtlety with narcissism. The Mozartian intimacy of the Adagio’s long opening soliloquy was glossed over, though some evocative playing from flute and cor anglais captured something of the music’s repose. The outermovements were not without incidental felicities, but co-ordination between soloist and orchestra was often lacking – Thibaudet seemed to ’go it alone’ in the breathless finale – while Hickox’s take on the jazz and blues idioms permeating the score was approximate at best. Not a performance to resonate in the mind.

The account of Elgar’s Second Symphony is difficult to assess. On one level, Hickox got much of it right. After a skimped opening chord, the first movement moved at a bounding, never breakneck pace, its introspective contrasts convincingly accommodated. The Larghetto’s funereal tread was tellingly conveyed over its two-stage intensification, though the plangent oboe counterpoint is affecting precisely because it is not the main melody line, which is how, unfortunately, it emerged here. The scherzo was properly capricious, the mechanistic outburst that overwhelms the trio rightly emerging as if from nowhere. The finale, neither overly stately nor unwisely triumphant, steered a safe course through a typically Elgarian sequential process to the affirmative calm of the conclusion.

This was fine as far as it went, except that there are interconnected aspects of this work – its range and depth of emotion, its complex metamorphosis of themes and motifs, its simultaneous refashioning and undermining of symphonic form – that constitute an experience, innovatory and unsettling, barely touched on here.

Heard from this perspective, the opening movement’s vast range of timbres and expressive shades, the Larghetto’s accumulation of stoical intensity, the scherzo’s unnervingly anarchic gestures, and the finale’s capping of its resplendent climax with a coda both resigned and transcendent were barely in evidence.

BBCNOW responded with excellent solo contributions and generally secure ensemble; the wilting Proms audience gave it a decent hand. But as a contribution to the performing tradition of one of the major symphonies of its period, Hickox’s interpretation was barely half the picture.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast – Tuesday, 31 July, at 2 o’clock

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