Viola Concerto in A, Op. 75

  1. Introduzione quasi una Fantasia
  2. Molto vivace
  3. Collana musicale: Andante moderato

Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) remains a rather enigmatic figure in British music of the 20th Century, He is frequently cited as a leading British composer, but even in his native country performances of his music, at least in public, are quite rare; he is definitely better represented in recordings. His musical style has been described as austere and intellectual, and in certain ways it is; his harmonies are beautiful but move in very unexpected ways; the melodies are often very pretty but he never transforms them into heroic utterances. His textures are sometimes thick and complex. But his music is very beautiful in a somewhat traditional way. His aim throughout his life was to create music that sounded new and contemporary but did not rely on extremes of dissonance or effect to do so,  The more famous composer whose music his most closely resembles may be Gerald Finzi, which is not surprising given that they were close friends. On the other their friendship itself was surprising given that Rubbra was a devout Catholic who was interested in the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, while Finzi was an atheist of Jewish descent whose primary reading interests were the metaphysical poets of the 17th century.

The Viola Concerto was written in the early 1950s for the great virtuoso William Primrose. Primrose liked the work and performed it fairly often, including taking it on his American tour in 1959. There were plans to record the work with Primrose but they never materialized. Rubbra himself was notoriously reticent about promoting his own music, and the work is staggeringly difficult to play. All of these factors have a role in the fact that the work has not entered the standard repertoire despite the fact that those who have studied it pretty much universally agree that it is a gorgeous work of quite remarkable originality. Some have suggested that  some superficial resemblances  

to the best known of all Viola Concertos-that of William Walton-has also worked against it. Both Concertos open with a movement in the key of A minor, and begin with an identical rising  two note figure. Both have an unusual structure in which the first and last movements are slow and the middle movement is quick. But past these few factors there is little that is similar in the two works.

What to listen for

The concerto begins with a movement that is dark and brooding, and ends with probably has the most unusual cadenza ever conceived-over a slow timpani roll, the viola slowly rises from the middle to the top of the instrument with dark held chords played very freely. It is a kind of anti-cadenza, eschewing the brilliance and showiness we associate with that device. The second movement maintains a triple meter in the viola against a quadruple meter in the orchestra for almost the entire movement-the rhythmic complexity is astonishing, and gives the movement a kind of off-kilter swing that Rubbra humorously suggested was an “evocation of my imaginary Spanish ancestor”. But it is the last movement that is Rubbra at his most original. The movement is called “Collana Musicale” or musical necklace. It consists of nine linked sections, all joined together, and all based on the thirteen notes that open the movement. The effect is kind of like hearing a set of variations but without a theme, and the feeling of organic movement from one section to the next, as one idea leads to the next with no repetition, is something unique and fascinating. After some gorgeous melodic interludes the work ends brilliantly with a full throated exclamation in A major.