Edmund Rubbra is a composer who has faded from English musical history, written out of a narrative that jumps straight from Vaughan Williams and Holst to Britten and Walton. But this release from The Sixteen is a defiant and overdue attempt to rewrite that history, to establish Rubbra where he belongs, as one of the most distinctive harmonic voices of his generation – not the conservative throwback he has been painted, but a composer for whom the possibilities of tonality were far from exhausted.
That voice might emerge most emphatically in Rubbra’s 11 symphonies, but his choral works distil their harmonic language into something cleaner, more concise. The sonic imagination here roams widely, from the craggy, sharp-edged beauty of the Tenebrae Motets to the gauzy clouds of modal richness established by the two choirs of the Missa Cantuariensis and the lightly-worn contrapuntal skill of Vain Wits and Except the Lord.
This music gives little away on the page – its impact is all in the pacing and careful textural balance of performance. Harry Christophers deploys his singers with care, ensuring absolute vertical clarity and balance, but also a horizontal flow that propels music whose organic, evolving structures can easily become static. Shifting from sinewy, desexed declamation in Judas Mercator Pessimus to the soft-focus delicacy of the Mass’s Benedictus, the singers make eloquent advocates for this quietly astonishing