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John JOUBERT (b. 1927)
Temps Perdu - Variations for String Orchestra Op.99 (1984) [19:18]
Sinfonietta (1962) [17:26]
The Instant Moment Op.110 (1987)1 [25:54]
Henry Herford (baritone)1; English String Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. no details given but other sources indicate Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, 21 March 1987.
Experience Classicsonline

This is the second BMS disc devoted to the music of John Joubert that I have had the pleasure of reviewing in recent weeks. As with all composers of importance, as their musical vocabulary starts to bore into your consciousness you become aware what a powerful and individual voice they have. We are indebted again to the British Music Society for their promotion of all British music but of this composer in particular.

The CD appears to have been recorded twelve or so years ago (the one black mark for the release is the total absence of any information regarding the recording) but I am not clear if this is a re-release or a licensed disc. That is of little matter ultimately - it is the music that counts. Here we have three works for string orchestra - a pair of relatively recent pieces performed by the commissioning artists framing an earlier Sinfonietta written for a classical orchestra. John Joubert provides the succinct but illuminating liner-notes - a model of maximum information with minimum verbosity. The disc opens with Temps Perdu: Variations for String Orchestra Op.99. The work takes its title and genesis from Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Joubert’s idea was to use his own juvenilia as a “memory” which he could then revisit and “remember” in the context of the here and now. To this end he took themes from two short string works he wrote during his teens and has added material from Saint-Saens’ Violin Sonata in D minor (which is referred to in the novel) as the memory; the variations are the recollections of it. If this reads as clumsy and contrived that is the failing of my explanation entirely - the music is fluent and approachable. This is string writing closer to Tippett than Vaughan Williams, lyrical yet angular if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction. The general level of dissonance is quite high but Joubert is more than willing to embrace moments of meltingly beautiful consonance. Variation 1 is especially appealing - titled Espièglerie which fortunately my dictionary was able to tell me is “the quality or state of being roguish or frolicsome” - a perfect description of this movement. Throughout the whole disc the English String Orchestra play with commendable attack and commitment but unfortunately the recording lets things down with the sound close and scrawny. It’s a bit like sitting too close to the front desk of strings at a concert - you do hear the other parts, but filtered through a dominant first desk. Clearly the orchestra had an ongoing relationship with Joubert - reinforced by the presence of two of his children in it for this recording - but to be brutally honest it sounds as though one more session would have helped tidy some loose ends significantly.

The central piece in the programme is the Sinfonietta from 1962. It’s scored for strings with added pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns. This is superbly proportioned with a pair of five and a half minute Allegros framing a Molto Moderato. As the only purely abstract work here it allows Joubert to concentrate on form and musical argument. I had never heard this piece before but I hope that in the nigh-on fifty years since it was written it has been regularly performed - it seems like an absolute gift for the many chamber orchestras both amateur and professional looking for a concert-opener. Again the recording balance means that the woodwind are placed well behind the strings and the astringent quality given to the sound detracts from the overall impact. I am a great admirer of the work of Malcolm Arnold and this work reminded me of his own three Sinfoniettas - only better!

The most substantial work on the disc is also the most recent; the song-cycle for baritone and strings The Instant Moment. In English music the combination of solo voice and strings in a song-cycle is relatively rare - the two that spring to mind are Finzi’s Dies Natalis and Britten’s Les Illuminations. Both are towering masterpieces and this work deserves to be mentioned in such exalted company. I remember many years ago as a student performing the Vaughan Williams Five Mystical Songs (as it happens in the version for strings and piano) with Henry Herford. What sticks in my memory was his ability to connect with and project the text. So it is here - the texts by D.H. Lawrence are knotty and far from easy to “explain” to an audience. In his note Joubert explains his choices of texts as illuminating five highly differentiated reactions to the experience of love. Joubert’s particular brilliance is to write music that is illustrative of the “outer” experience - for example in the first song Bei Hennef - the twilight rippling of a river as well as the “inner” emotion as the nature poem transforms into the “troubles, anxieties and pains” of the blossoming love. This is demanding music - both to perform and to listen to but the dramatic pacing of it is so sure that you find yourself drawn into the world of composer and poet. The second setting Loggerheads is really a miniature operatic scena depicting an argument seen from one side - not a note or beat is wasted, it has something of the flavour of Janáček in its terse bitter bleakness. A particular favourite is the penultimate song December Night - Joubert acknowledges the debt to Tristan in the strings’ opening phrases and although the strings are muted throughout there is an underlying tension that is simply brilliant. Herford is particularly good at implying the passionate seduction that is going on beneath his nonchalant words. The cycle closes with Moonrise which Joubert describes as “a visionary poem which sees true love as everlasting”. This is the longest movement in the cycle and the analogy is made between the rising of the moon and the blossoming of love. The strings slowly haul themselves up from murky depths and gradually gain tempo and height - a pair of solo violins intertwining like lovers - a moment strangely reminiscent of Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli - before sinking back into richly harmonised chords for the words “beauty is a thing beyond the grave”. This presages a second more processional ascent to a tremolando climax - oh I wish I couldn’t hear individual players quite so clearly! - until the movement ends with visionary suspended chords held over a melodic reminiscence. A final widely-spaced consonant chord giving gentle benediction. This is a major work and one which deserves to be far more widely known. Even relatively brief acquaintance, such as I have had, yields great riches. Henry Herford is quite magnificent and very well supported by the passionate playing of William Boughton and the English String Orchestra.

Apart from the technical issues this disc is an absolute winner but do not be put off - the musical qualities far outweigh any other caveats. More Joubert please.

Nick Barnard 

see also review by Neil Horner



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