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John JOUBERT (b. 1927)
Song-cycles and chamber music

The Hour Hand for soprano and recorder op. 101 (1982) [6:24]
Shropshire Hills for high voice and piano op. 155 (2003) [10:28]
Improvisation for recorder and piano op. 120 (1988) [6:07]
Kontakion for cello and piano op. 69 (1971) [13:23]
The Rose is Shaken in the Wind for soprano and recorder op. 137 (2001) [6:07]
Six Poems by Emily Brontë for soprano and piano op. 63 (1965?) [21:23]
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano); John Turner (recorder); Richard Tunnicliffe (cello); John McCabe (piano)
rec. Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall, Manchester University, 18-19 December 2006. DDD
first recordings made in presence of composer

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In his informative and entertaining notes to this fine release marking John Joubert’s eightieth birthday, the composer comments, apropos of the Emily Brontë songs. He mentions his endeavours to follow the example of Schubert in allowing "the poetic imagery to inform the piano part with illustrative thematic material which can translate into a musically equivalent symbolic language" and to avoid "the danger of monotony implicit in the purely strophic setting of metrical verse". This observation could equally apply to all four cycles on this disc. These are the very characteristics which distinguish his writing for the voice with long drawn naturally flowing vocal lines – frequently turning with a touch of Berliozian alchemy in a direction the listener does not expect yet leaving you convinced that it is nonetheless the right direction. This is supported by accompaniments which recall Britten’s instinctive knack of reflecting the very essence of the words in sonic terms. The piano writing often extends with dramatic effect to the opposite extremes of the keyboard in the manner but not the style of Janáček. The recorder’s imitative ticking clock which opens the first song in The Hour Hand, for example, is no mere simplistic pictorial device but the precursor of a subtle translation of the poet’s message that time is ever moving though the hour hand itself might appear to be static.

The result in short is that each poem is enhanced as is a jewel by a fine setting, which of course is ultimately what the art song is all about. Inevitably this demands an uncompromising standard of technical as well as artistic ability, which from these executants is a sine qua non.

Much thought too has gone into the planning and layout of this recording, in which the four song-cycles, balanced in contrasting pairs, are separated by two substantial chamber works. Kontakion for cello and piano written in 1971 on the death of a friend of the composer is a moving and intense 13-minute slow movement in sonata-form making use of the traditional Eastern Orthodox chant for the dead. Improvisation for recorder and piano likewise is a tribute. This time it is to Howard Ferguson, Joubert’s old teacher at the RAM, on the occasion of the latter’s eightieth birthday in 1988. It is a model of what such a piece should be. Drawing on three works written during his period of study, one of which was given its first performance by Ferguson, and working in a quotation from one of his teacher’s own pieces from the same period as well, it adheres despite the title to a strict mirror structure A-B-C-C1-B1-A1. So perhaps this should be regarded as a formal extemporization on the given themes, in which the pupil demonstrates to the master the skills he has acquired, both impressive and endearing however you look at it.

The casual browser in a record shop who espies the title Shropshire Hills on the cover of a CD might be excused for supposing this to be another pastoral setting of Housman. The roll-call of familiar place names is there – "… round top of Wrekin, Corndon, Clee and Wenlock Edge" – but the poems set in this cycle are by Stephen Tunnicliffe, father of the cellist who plays on this disc. The substance of the poetry, and thus also of the music, deals with the natural life of that magical area rather than the human drama which infuses Housman’s poetry. Just once in a furious climactic passage poet and composer rebel violently against human intrusion in the form of the "jets of war" unwinding "their foamy trains" on low altitude practice runs up the Clun Valley. The cycle begins quite beautifully with the voice alone and ends with an extended passage for piano which to my ears at least - and also my surprise - carries more than a hint of the spirituality of William Baines.

The Rose is Shaken in the Wind takes its title from the song of that name, written originally in memory of Tracey Chadwell, whose performance of another Joubert song cycle, The Turning Wheel to texts by the same New Zealand poet, Ruth Dallas, is preserved on BMS CD 420/421. This was expanded into the present set at the instigation of John Turner. Both this cycle and The Hour Hand demonstrate the composer’s skill at bringing harmonic richness to the spare linear textures of solo voice with recorder. He encompasses on the one hand the desolation of Horizontal Beams from the latter set, so redolent of Warlock’s Curlew, or the sombre mood of Tombstone Song coloured by the tones of the bass recorder (with an answering refrain ending each stanza that inevitably calls to mind Housman’s Is my team ploughing). On the other hand we have The Gardener’s Song, in which the gardener/poet scolds her garden pests and looks forward to an after-life free of them. Without in any way diminishing the emotional impact of the cycle this "horticultural patter-song", as the composer describes it, is an absolute winner. It is a tour de force for both Lesley-Jane Rogers and John Turner, this time playing the sopranino recorder.

It has always surprised me that Emily Brontë’s poems have not attracted the attention of song writers more frequently - we desperately need a recording of Pamela Harrison’s cycle The Lonely Landscape. Perhaps some are daunted by her mystic pantheism. No such reservations afflict Joubert’s Six Poems by Emily Brontë, differing from the six chosen by Harrison and selected with Warlockian meticulousness, as he puts it, "to outline a spiritual journey from a mood of regret for the past to one of defiant optimism". Suffice it to record that the music says it all, a worthy complement to the poet’s vision and in the life-enhancing affirmation of Emily’s last poem, a telling conclusion to this splendid release.

Roger Carpenter

See also review by Rob Barnett

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