John JOUBERT (b. 1927)
The Choral Music of John Joubert:-
Five Songs of Incarnation, Op. 163 (2007) [20:14]
Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in A, Op. 57 (1968) [13:01]
O Lorde, the maker of al thing, Op. 7b (1952) [4:14]
Passacaglia and Fugue for Organ, Op. 35 (1961) [10:13]
There is no rose (1954) [2:51]
Rochester Triptych, Opp 126, 132, 133 (1991-92) [25:26]
Choir of Gloucester Cathedral/Adrian Partington
Ashley Grote (organ)
rec. 29-30 April, 1 May 2009, Gloucester Cathedral. DDD
English texts included
PRIORY PRCD 1028 [77:01]
In an excellent note that accompanied the Somm Records CD of chamber music by John Joubert (review), released as part of his 80th birthday celebrations in 2007, Christopher Morley made a point that’s highly relevant to this present disc. As a schoolboy in Cape Town Joubert attended the Diocesan College, Rondebosch where the Director of Music was Claude Brown. Mr Morley says that Brown had been the assistant to Ivor Atkins, Organist at Worcester Cathedral, and had played piano at Three Choirs Festival rehearsals at which Elgar conducted his own choral works. Thus, says Morley, “John Joubert became acquainted with the great Elgar oratorios, as well as other works in the English choral tradition, before ever having the chance to hear them in live performance.” At the risk of making an all-too-obvious point, you will look in vain, I think, for traces of Elgar in the pieces on this disc. What you will discover, however, is the work of a composer who knows and respects the choral tradition to which Christopher Morley refers. It seems to me that the pieces included on this CD are firmly in the English choral lineage but, like all the best composers, Joubert has taken what he deems relevant from that tradition and has then grafted on his own very personal and individual stamp.
Nowhere is this better illustrated, I think, than in the set of Evening Canticles, the second set that Joubert has composed. These were written for St George’s Cathedral in Joubert’s home city, Cape Town. These Canticles are, quite simply, one of the most arresting compositions in the genre that I can recall hearing. The music is intense and dramatic; the vocal writing is powerful and there is a big organ part. In the Magnificat the music has real driving energy from ‘And his mercy is on them that fear him’ onwards. This is really tense, edgy stuff. There’s a momentary touch of relaxation at ‘He rememb’ring his mercy’ before a majestic, hugely impressive doxology that begins loudly and eventually winds down to a quietly mysterious Amen. Oddly – and irritatingly – the Nunc Dimittis is not separately tracked (it starts at 7:09). This begins quietly but very soon Joubert increases both the volume and the intensity and the music achieves a huge climax at ‘To be the glory of thy people Israel’. The same doxology closes both Canticles. This is a stunning set of Canticles though the music is certainly not for the faint hearted. It must be hugely demanding to sing and play but it receives a tremendously assured performance here.
I’d guess that most people had the same first acquaintance with John Joubert’s music that I did, namely the deservedly popular carol, Torches. It was only fairly recently that I realised that this carol has a sibling, if I may use that term. Torches is Op 7a and on this disc we hear O Lorde, the maker of al thing, Op. 7b. It’s quite different to Torches. This is a slow, intense and rather dramatic piece, which rises to a tremendous climax before subsiding to a quiet ending and all in just over four minutes. It hasn’t got the immediate appeal of Torches but, dare I say, I think the music is deeper. In some ways it would have been interesting to hear the two elements of Op 7 together but I suppose that it was felt, not unreasonably, that Torches is not exactly short of recordings. However, we do get a chance to hear another popular Christmas piece, There is no rose. This familiar, unaccompanied piece has relatively spare textures and the music is beautiful. The present performance is a lovely one.
Also connected with Christmas is Five Songs of Incarnation. This originated in a proposal that Joubert should set the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel. In fact, the composer went one better with what annotator Nick Fisher describes as a “brilliant solution”. Joubert divides the passage from St John into five sections, which are sung by a solo tenor, here the clear and ringing voice of James Atherton. Each Gospel segment is followed by a setting of a medieval carol text. This approach, in Nick Fisher’s words, “create[s] a contrast between [the carols’] simple intensity and the metaphysics of the biblical text, resulting in a typically accessible work of remarkable power and imagination.”
The five carol settings, which are unaccompanied, are nicely contrasted. The second and fourth (Make we joy now in this feast and When Christ was born of Mary) feature, for the most part, lively music which here is vigorously delivered in dynamic performances. The central setting, I sing of a maiden, is an attractive, flowing piece that includes a taxing treble solo. The outer movements, Of a Rose, a lovely Rose and Let us gather hand in hand, are made of sterner stuff. These are intense compositions in which the choral textures are often complex. The latter strikes me as particularly demanding to sing but the music is affirmative and strong and Adrian Partington and his choir offer convincing performances.
According to the notes Rochester Triptych comprises “three extracts from longer works” but, unfortunately gives no more detail so I can’t identify the works in question. Interestingly, Joubert’s list of works also includes, in the Chorus with Orchestra section, Rochester Triptych, Op. 139 (1996-97); I don’t know if this is a revised and orchestrated version of the music included on this disc. Rochester Triptych sets for choir and organ three poems by John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester (1647-1680). The first, ‘Impartiall Death’, is for tenors and basses only. This is uncompromising, powerful music, illustrating, to my ears, the awful majesty of death. It’s a dark, unremitting piece and the Gloucester singers, receiving potent support from organist Ashley Grote, give a strong account of it. The upper voices of the choir take over for ‘Universal Nature’, which is cast in a lighter, more lyrical vein. Here Rochester’s words are much more optimistic in tone and Joubert provides matching music. The quiet ending is especially lovely. The full choir comes together for ‘Blest Glorious Man!’ The contrast between this and the first part of the Triptych is very pronounced. After an exuberant, affirmative outburst at the very start the music that follows is positive and affirmative in tone. The conclusion of the piece is tremendously exciting and fervent and in these pages the Gloucester choir gives its collective all.
Ashley Grote is involved in several of the choral pieces and, having delivered some superb playing during those pieces, he gets his own place in the sun with a performance of Passacaglia and Fugue, one of Joubert’s very few pieces for organ solo. This was written for Alan Wicks. The passacaglia consists of thirteen variations and seems to me to demonstrate a genuine sense of growth, both musical and emotional. The fugue (from 5:25) is energetic and exciting, building to a thunderous conclusion. Grote gives a tremendous account of the piece, exploiting the full resources of the impressive Gloucester Cathedral organ.
There’s some fine and distinctive music on this disc. The choral writing is often very demanding and there are moments where one feels that the Gloucester trebles are at full stretch. But the choir is valiant and not only do they sing well but also they sound fully convinced by the music and they put it across splendidly. In this context I think it’s important to note that, in all probability, most of this music would have been unfamiliar to them. I believe that Adrian Partington has been an admirer of John Joubert’s music for a long time and it was a bold decision to devote what I think may have been his first recording since arriving at Gloucester in 2008 to music that is not as widely known or appreciated as it deserves to be. That boldness has paid off for Joubert’s music has been splendidly served.
Engineer Paul Crichton has produced a very good recording. The acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral is large and resonant. Crichton has captured that resonance well and has used it to advantage without sacrificing clarity. The documentation is slightly disappointing, given that this is music that will be unfamiliar to many collectors. Not all the dates of composition are included, though this information could have been obtained in minutes from the composer’s website. Nick Fisher’s note is good as far as it goes but there’s insufficient information and comment about the music itself, I feel, and that’s a pity since he’s evidently an enthusiast.
This is, so far as I’m aware, only the second disc devoted to Joubert’s choral music – though individual pieces have been included in other recital discs. The other all-Joubert disc is the very good one recorded by the Louis Halsey Singers as long ago as 1975 (review). Happily, there is no duplication whatsoever between that programme and this Gloucester disc. Collectors who enjoy English choral music should certainly investigate this important release.
John Quinn
An important release of some fine and distinctive music, firmly in the English choral tradition.