Rubbra's idiom, with its contrapuntal complexity and clear harmony, suited the medium of the string quartet exceptionally well, and he left four examples, spread out evenly through his composing career. The First Quartet appeared in 1935 and was substantially revised ten years later; the result is a bit of a hotchpotch, with a middle movement in a notably simpler idiom than the rest, but it works well enough as an interlude, while the outer movements are both mature Rubbra, and that good judge Harold Truscott thought the last movement unsurpassed among this composer's finales. The Second Quarter (which the Maggini Quartet have already recorded on another Naxos CD) was one of the most admired of all Rubbra's works, and deservedly. The first movement maintains fluid thematic development, with perfect clarity and variety of texture; this, one feels, is the ideal way to write for the medium. The second and third movements (a scintillating, polymetric scherzo and an eloquent song-like slow movement) are almost as good; the finale maintains the musical interest, but with its rather contrived thematic links is not wholly convincing (at least to my ears). The Third Quartet disappointed the critics on its first appearance (which I heard at the time, almost fifty years ago), and remains the weak link in the chain: the second and third movements are both dominated by rigid motifs that firmly resist variation or development. Fortunately, the Fourth Quartet marked a return to form: the thematic development is rich and riveting, while the harmony (with its use of the minor seventh) has, like other late Rubbra works (such as Symphonies X and XI), a new warmth and expressiveness. The second and final movement, a slow elegy, unfolds to perfection, deeply moving, with a sublime and utterly satisfying conclusion.
There have been two earlier recordings of all the Rubbra quartets, by the Sterling and Dante Quartets, both admirable. I have compared all three performances of the final movement of Quartet IV. The Sterling and Dante Quartets keep to the composer's slow marking, but the Maggini have the courage to play the movement even more slowly, and achieve and maintain an intensity that outmatches the earlier two recordings. This is a great performance of a great work.