In the string quartets of English composer Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986), one hears the reverence for the human voice, the breath and flow of musical line, the natural sense of rhythm. Rubbra's output of symphonic and choral works was prodigious, and mainly of a religious nature. But it was the string quartet that Rubbra described as the "purest and most lucid texture available to a composer." He had a lifelong interest in comparative religion, mysticism and metaphysical literature, and believed that the interval of the fifth is the most mysterious, as it offers a life-affirming quality.
Edmund Rubbra was regarded as Gustav Holst's foremost pupil, and the String Quartet No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 35, was begun in the year of Holst's death. It was given its first performance in November 1934 by the Stratton Quartet. Rubbra was dissatisfied with the piece, and would have abandoned it altogether if it hadn't been for the encouragement of Vaughan-Williams who advised Rubbra to revise the work after the war and compose an entirely new finale. The result is a string quartet of captivating beauty and probing spirituality with elegiac moments that may reflect an innermost response to his mentor's death. Rubbra often sets his melodies slightly apart from each other in inversion; the listener may hear the downward motion of an upward phrase as an echo, like a ray of light upon shade.
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 112 was completed in 1963 and commissioned by the Allegri Quartet. All three movements are connected. The work begins, as if out of nowhere, and unfolds searchingly with varying degrees of intensity, alternating between spells of rhapsodic lyricism and edgy rhythmic propensity. The quartet was written at a time of immense personal change for Rubbra. Influenced by eastern philosophy but then converting to Catholicism, his music is never superficial or merely pretty, though traditional in tonality, but darkly ruminative, yet laced with irrepressible optimism. The third quartet has been described by many as vocal in character; Rubbra was inspired by a quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas:
"Sound is the leap of mind in the eternal breaking out into song."
String Quartet No. 4, Op. 150 was completed in 1977 and first performed in that year by the Amici Quartet. The piece was written in response to, and bears the inscription, 'In Memoriam Bennett Tarshish 1940 - 1972', a young American music critic and friend who died tragically young of acute diabetes. It is a two movement work which touches on extremes of emotion; the foreboding opening is contrasted by spasms of energizing drama, and finally, ascends to a prayerful Amen.
The Maggini Quartet is one of the finest British string quartets, and renowned for their championship of British repertoire. The players, Gina McCormack, first violin, David Angel, second violin, Martin Outram, viola, and Michal Kaznowski, cello, display complete unity of purpose and exemplary precision. International awards for the Maggini Quartet include Gramophone Chamber Music CD of the Year, a Cannes Classical Award and a Diapason d'Or of the Year and they have been nominated twice for Grammy Awards. The Maggini performs Edmund Rubbra's String Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 4 on this Naxos disc with heart-melting expressiveness, and a vivid array of tonal colors.