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John JOUBERT (b. 1927)
O Praise God in his Holiness Op.52 (1967)a [1:49]
Pro Pace Motets (1955/9) [21:29]
How are my Foes Increased, Lord! Op.61 (1969)a [6:45]
Sleep Canticle Op.81 (1974)b [9:45]
Three Hymns to St Oswald Op.74 (1972)a [22:04]
Nowell Op.58 (1968)a [3:23]
Jean Knibbs (soprano)b; Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor)b; Martin Neary (organ)a
The Louis Halsey Singers/Louis Halsey
rec. St Giles, Cripplegate, London, February 1979
BMS 102CDH [65:30]

Eighty this year, John Joubert has a varied and substantial body of works to his credit. He composed in almost every genre, including opera. His large output includes numerous choral works, both small and large, of which very little is actually heard, let alone recorded. This new release is a timely reminder of the importance and variety of Joubert’s choral output, in that it offers two substantial works along with some shorter ones all of which bear the mark of remarkable craftsmanship. Not only that; they also evince a strong affinity with the British choral tradition, in which Joubert always manages to bring something new and fresh.

The opening item O Praise God in His Holiness is a short, rousing work with catchy, syncopated rhythms. It may bring Walton and Mathias to mind, but it’s typically Joubert throughout. This lovely work stands in sharp contrast to the imposing Pro Pace Motets composed between 1955 and 1959. This ambitious and substantial triptych consists of three panels each setting words drawn from Helen Waddell’s famous collection, on which Gustav Holst also drew (Six Medieval Lyrics of 1932 and The Wandering Scholar Op.50). They are Libera Plebem (1955), O Tristia Secla Priorum (1959) and Solus ad Victimam (1958). Each is set in ternary form, often with a contrasting central section. This ternary format also informs the Three Hymns to St Oswald. The music of the Pro Pace Motets is generally harmonically tense and densely contrapuntal, and displays the composer’s formal mastery to the full. The first panel has a rather tricky fugal section that brings Britten to mind. In the central panel, functioning as a slow movement, voices weave a densely contrapuntal web with sometimes perilously exposed solo parts. The central section is another rapid fugal passage. The third panel is the longest and the most elaborate of the triptych. It is in broad terms conceived as a slow, cumulative crescendo, a long journey from darkness to light, from doubt to assertiveness, although it ends calmly. As already mentioned, the music is quite complex and demanding, posing numerous problems of pitch and intonation. It is clearly designed for accomplished, professional singers such as The Louis Halsey Singers.

Again, How are my Foes Increased, Lord! on words by George Herbert strongly contrasts with the complex writing heard in the Pro Pace Motets. This is yet another tripartite structure, in which the central section briefly features two solo voices.

A small-scale cantata, the Sleep Canticle is scored for soprano, tenor and chorus. This time, the words are drawn from Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici - a prose passage intoned by the tenor soloist - whereas the refrain sung twice by the soprano soloist is on words by Julian of Norwich. The piece falls into two sections, the first of which opens with the tenor soloist who is joined later by the chorus at the words "Sleep is a death". It ends with a short coda by the soprano soloist on words by Julian of Norwich. The second section follows straight after and begins with the chorus then leading back to the refrain again. The unaccompanied tenor has the last word.

The Three Hymns to St Oswald for mixed chorus and organ were composed in 1972 and revised some time later. The first performance of the revised version took place in 1976. As already mentioned earlier in this review, this is a large-scale, substantial work; but the music is "plainer", more straightforward than in the Pro Pace Motets, which does not mean that it is easier. The idiom is generally less tense, less stringent and less dissonant, although Joubert allows some mild dissonance here and there, both in the part for voices and that for the organ. Once again, each hymn is cast in ternary form. The second hymn is rather more complex since the lengthy, dance-like central section is "a self-contained set of variations". Each hymn ends with a serene, untroubled Amen.

The concluding Nowell is a lively carol in much the same vein as similar works by Mathias, Gardner and Rutter. The music has a rustic, often dance-like and folksy character. A simple, memorable tune is nicely varied throughout. This lovely work is rounded off by a restatement of the opening ‘Nowell’.

Needless to say, the Louis Halsey Singers sing beautifully throughout and are particularly impressive in the demanding Pro Pace Motets. These recordings made in 1975 have been nicely transferred and sound remarkably well.

Both the Pro Pace Motets and the Three Hymns to St Oswald were recorded many years ago during the LP era (Pearl SHE 534). These recordings of the shorter works were also available on cassette, if I am not mistaken. Anyway, I had never heard them before, and I am therefore delighted to have them re-issued now on the occasion of John Joubert’s 80th birthday. This release is the perfect companion to the earlier British Music Society’s disc released to mark Joubert’s 70th birthday (BMS 419CD). It is good to have these fine works back in the catalogue; and good news too to know that SOMM will soon be releasing a double-CD set with some of Joubert’s chamber music. I hope that we will soon be able to hear more of his music, especially some of his large-scale works such as the symphonies and the choral-orchestral Gong-Tormented Sea Op.96.

This most welcome release is an apt and timely birthday tribute to a very distinguished composer whose beautifully crafted and often appealing music is all-too-easily overlooked.

Hubert Culot


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