This release has been greeted with several awards and much praise, and to a large extent it is well deserved – the performances are glorious, the recording is warm and full and clear at the same time. Rubbra was also an excellent symphonist, and Chandos’s cycle is something of a must. The ninth symphony, however, seems to have held a special place for the composer. Rubbra was a devout Catholic, and his ninth symphony, “Sinfonia sacra” (subtitled “The Resurrection”) was apparently composed as a very personal statement – it is introverted, atmospheric and overall conciliatory in character (even though it was inspired by a Bramante paining showing the risen Christ still suffering the agony of his wounds), and it is a bit difficult to get a firm grasp on it on a first hearing. But do give it a second and third try, for this is – to a large extent – marvelous music.
It started out, apparently, as an oratorio, and Rubbra worked on it for more than a decade before it appeared as a choral symphony – and one can indeed imagine that Rubbra made the switch because of a natural inclination toward coherent, tightly structured arguments. That said, if he hadn’t used the title “symphony” I suppose I wouldn’t have guessed (despite the formal cohesiveness of the work). The most important thing, however, is that it is filled with wonderful music, often agonizingly beautiful and haunting. So why am I hesitant to call it "great"? Well, Rubbra sets the narrative as recitative. Not only does this to an extant wreak havoc on his forms, but after the deeply moving Regina coeli movement, which builds up to what seems for all purposes to be the climax of the work we get … well, Rubbra chooses to set an unaccompanied piece of text for the narrator. I suppose the profundity of the text is supposed to serve as some kind of apex, but instead the effect is such a lapse of good taste that it almost beggars belief – it’s as if Mahler had decided to interrupt the last movement of his ninth symphony with a narrator telling us “look, this is really profound; seriously” before giving the microphone back to the orchestra. I suppose Rubbra’s devoutness was sufficiently strong for him not to notice how the recited passage almost ruins the work, but it does. Still, he does eventually get the music back on track, and the final movements are often gorgeously haunting.
Had the symphony been an unqualified masterpiece were it not for the mentioned lapse of judgment? I don’t know. Overall it is a deeply moving work, though I suppose there are some stretches that seem a bit meandering – filling in gaps to make sure that the entire story is told by engaging in a bit of note-spinning to get us to the next rapturous moment. But given the quality of those moments I am inclined to forget that. It is, overall, at least a very rewarding work.
To open the program we get the earlier The Morning Watch (yes, Rubbra’s teacher Holst wrote a piece on the same text, and the connection isn’t lost on the listeners). It opens with a slow, reflective instrumental section, gradually building up for the entrance of the chorus. It is also definitely the work of an eminent symphonist, but I cannot, to be honest, conjure up much enthusiasm for it – the thematic material is non-descript, and the whole affair strikes me as little more than a skillfully written occasional piece.
As mentioned the performances are superb. The BBC National Chorus & Orchestra of Wales are marvelous throughout under Hickox’s direction (and if you cannot always make out the words of the chorus you can always consult the booklet – or just wallow in the atmosphere if the text doesn’t appeal to you as much as it did to Rubbra). The soloists are overall very good. Lynne Dawson’s Mary Magdalene is superbly sung, but her voice is perhaps not quite big enough to take command of the stage; as opposed to Della Jones, who does the recitatives magnificently. Stephen Roberts is very good as well, though he doesn’t really have that much to work with. The recorded sound is magnificent, and overall this disc does – despite its flaws – deserve a firm recommendation.