John JOUBERT (b. 1927) Symphony No. 1 op. 20 (1955) [31:17]
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Symphony No.1 Op.31 (1966) [30:45]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley (Joubert); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves (Mathias)
rec. Bishopsgate Institute, London, 15-16 January 1969, ADD (Mathias); March 1995, Watford Town Hall, DDD (Joubert)
Mathias originally issued on Pye Virtuoso LP TPLS13023; Joubert originally issued as Lyrita single CD SRCD.322
LYRITA SRCD.340 [62:02][image]

The opening movement of John Joubert's First Symphony (tr. 1) is characterized by the constant interchange between a chattering, fretting manner, notably in the woodwind, and the glidingly expressive musing which becomes prominent first in the strings at 1:24 and expanded into quite ardent cantabile from 1:34. These diverse elements co-exist playfully enough and from 3:05 Joubert becomes fascinated by a descending scale developed out of a rather staid melody introduced at 2:46 by violas and cellos.

I compared Vernon Handley's recording, the first commercial one, with a 1969 concert performance broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra/Stanford Robinson (British Library Sound Archive tape NP 1559W). Here are the comparative timings:-

Timings I II III IV Total
Handley 8:24 7:45 5:11 9:54 31:17
Robinson 8:24 6:51 5:09 9:33 30:11

Robinson's articulation is lighter than Handley's. He brings more humour to his perkier staccato woodwind chatter and the less solemn, but also less compelling, strings' musing and overall progression that Handley achieves. Handley benefits from a recording of finer body and clarity of dynamic contrast. As things develop (from 3:59) Robinson gives us cajoling strings alternating with jocular, snappy woodwind, where Handley goes for a smoother contrast of more sober strings calming an insistent woodwind section.

Marked 'Slow, but not overmuch', I preferred Robinson's less measured, more flowing approach to the second movement which takes nothing away from the solemnity, especially of the ruminating theme heard on unison strings after the opening fanfare. This for me recalls those eerily meditative string passages in the slow movement of Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony. Joubert is less desolate, more humane, particularly at Robinson's tempo, which gives the movement the quality of sorrowful witness. Handley has more gravitas in the movement's relentless parade but also more formality and therefore a degree of stiff distance. Yet with him you experience a total surrender to the sheer power of the stark climax, after which a brief silence, then a telling release and return to flexibility.

The third movement scherzo (tr. 3) is restless and hyperactive and for me brought that of Walton's First Symphony to mind. Joubert is less mordant but Handley relishes the perky trombones' descents from 0:42. And, what you might call a 'Trio' (1:34) is distinctive with its swaying theme in the strings matched against swirling woodwind. Later there's a chorale like second 'Trio' (2:18) featuring three trombones and tuba. It's all brilliantly effected by Handley and the LPO. Robinson isn't punchy enough despite pointing the contrasts in orchestration.
Handley's opening to the finale (tr. 4) is arresting but again formal because he attends more scrupulously to Joubert's† Adagio marking than Robinson, though I prefer the latter's greater urgency. What stands out in the introduction is the most soulfully lyrical passage in the entire work (from 1:42). It is given finer poise by Handley: silky first violins with seconds echoing, comfort in harsh times of the kind memorably evoked by Shostakovich or Britten. After this, Joubert's light Allegro (from 4:16), niftily realized by Handley, is comparatively trivial. It nevertheless allows the licence and novelty in this work of a confident, sunny, open air theme (from 5:28) and an exuberant close. Robinson presents well but Handley's digital recording brings out the sonority better.

Lyrita's coupling, William Mathias's First Symphony, encourages you to compare the two symphonic debuts. I'd say Mathias is the more original but also more uneven in inspiration.
The opening of Mathiasís First Symphony is all about the joy neo-classical display: darting, dancing high strings countered by bobbing low woodwind, the whole embellished by ample percussion, especially cymbals and xylophone. And what the Royal Philharmonic and Charles Groves vividly convey is total engagement with it all. The second theme, introduced by the cellos (tr. 5 1:49) has a contrasted dark yet intense colouring. Itís marked Ďcon passioneí and its reflection is gradually extended and passes to the violas. Where the originality comes in this movement is that the development (4:11) is a meditation on this second theme within a hazy but sympathetic environment. I compared the 1990 recording by the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer (Nimbus NI 5260). Here are the comparative timings.

Timings I II III IV Total
Groves 8:15 3:36 10:30 8:24 30:45
Mathias 7:55 3:38 11:19 8:08 31:00

The Groves analogue 1969 Pye recording is bright, rather dry but very immediate. The Nimbus digital recording has more detail. It places you within the perspective of the University of Birminghamís Great Hall and its opulent acoustic. Here I felt more of an observer whereas with the Pye I could fancy I was part of the experience. That said, Mathiasís slightly faster tempo emphasises more the progression of the opening movement. An example is in the early low woodwind responses. The second theme flows more and thus is a more passionate outpouring. Mathias makes the development dreamier, almost torpid. So he brings more contrast and colour, yet Groves makes a more neo-classical case. With Mathias you get more of a sense of individual aspects contributing to the whole picture. With Groves thereís more spontaneous concentration on those aspects as they emerge.

Beginning with the eerie warning of flutter-tonguing flutes and clarinets, the second movement (tr. 6) is an invigorating, jazzy scherzo with a constant display of energy. In Grovesís account especially, the raw rhythmic drive is dominated by tom-toms. Again thereís a more darkly coloured second theme, this time introduced by the violas (1:36). This brings about an even wilder phase. Mathias shows more dynamic contrast which makes the movement more exciting though the more forwardly recorded Groves has more physicality. Mathiasís second theme has a grim profile.

The slow movement (tr. 7) has a fairyland quality: a warm texture, a meditative flow. Thereís a relaxing motif on the piano before solo woodwind arabesques, at 2:21. A bright-eyed section is suddenly more glisteningly alive before oboe and strings at 2:58 take up again a low register. A more sustained theme of fuller body and broader horizon then emerges. After the climax of this first phase and calming woodwind descents the strings introduce a gentler sustained theme (6:36). Itís marked Ďtenderlyí. Groves makes it sound like a lullaby, yet one which can gather instruments and open out like a procession of witness. It becomes more affirmative and all inclusive, recalling and absorbing material from the earlier climax. As in the first movement, Grovesís account is intensely and concentratedly present. I felt an iron-willed determination to eschew relaxation. The recording aids this vision with great forward presence. Mathiasís more measured approach to his marking ĎMolto Adagio, sempre flessibileí brings a more faraway feel to the opening. Even so thereís a more organic flow to the movement. The lyricism of the woodwind contributions is clearer and thereís a sense of something germinating. That said, the bright-eyed section is not as well contrasted as it is with Groves. With Mathias a seamless progression of the movement becomes of more pressing drama, of clearer, if more self-conscious, crafting. The second phase opening for tender strings has a lighter touch than Grovesís but thereafter gathers more ardently and urgently.

The finale (tr. 8) is ecstatic and neo-classical. A frontispiece of fanfares in which assertive brass alternate with equally forceful strings and woodwind is followed by yet another theme for strings in low register (1:00). This one is an Allegro con brio marked Ďenergeticí to boot. Itís very stimulating, especially on its second appearance when the trumpet garnishes it with a counter-theme. You appreciate the woodwind calming things down again, but they also perk them up. This is a fizzing virtuoso orchestral piece of ever-scurrying strings which Groves and the RPO play with great relish. Itís an uninhibited celebratory dance. Quieter episodes on woodwind are followed by the grandeur of the brass as all the threads are drawn together in a sonorous peroration. Mathiasís finale, as it happens, has more of the feel of a regal pageant. Itís less aggressive than Groves but paradoxically more exciting. This is partly because again the dynamic contrasts are more explicit. At a slightly faster Allegro thereís more emphasis on progression. Mathiasís close, glowingly recorded, is more exultant.

Here then are two fine performances, clearly recorded, albeit by different techniques appropriate to their times. The Mathias offers a different, rather more classical and objective interpretation than the composerís own.

Michael Greenhalgh

See also review by Rob Barnett

Two fine performances, clearly recorded Ö see Full Review