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John JOUBERT (b.1927)
Temps perdu, Variations for String orchestra Op. 99 (1984) [19:23]
Sinfonietta Op. 38 (1962) [17:38]
The instant moment, song-cycle for baritone and string orchestra to words by D. H. Lawrence Op. 110 (1987) [26:07]
Christopher Hirons and Pierre Joubert (violins)
Henry Herford (baritone)
English String Orchestra/William Boughton
rec. 1987, Warwick Arts Centre, Warwick University
Sung texts included in the booklet
NAXOS 8.571368 [63:09]

John Joubert is a naturalized British composer of South African origin. I do not need to sketch out his biography or list his main works as this had already been very adequately done on MWI here. He is probably best known for his shorter choral works, and there can be few people who have not heard or even sung his carol Torches. There is a charming story of how a carol-singing group regaled Joubert with a performance before realising that he was its composer.

He has, however, also composed a number of orchestral works and even three full-length operas. Opportunities to hear these are rare (Jane Eyre performed in Birmingham on 22 October 2015), so this reissue of three orchestral works, one a song-cycle, is very welcome. Temps perdu was inspired by two things. One was an early work of his own, a set of variations which became the basis of this work – we might compare Britten’s Simple Symphony, which had a similar origin. The other was Proust’s la recherche du temps perdu. The English translation, still happily titled Remembrance of Things Past, had recently (1982) been reissued in a version revised by Terence Kilmartin. In Swann’s Way, the first part, Charles Swann and his girlfriend Odette de Crcy have as a private symbol of their love a ‘petite phrase’ from the violin sonata by the fictional composer Vinteuil. This is based on an actual passage in the first violin sonata by Saint-Sans. Joubert includes this in the first variation and several times later. I have already mentioned Britten, and Joubert’s work is in a very similar idiom and could be compared to Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. It is a most attractive piece.

The Sinfonietta I would compare rather to Tippett, as it begins with a sonata allegro, a form Britten avoided, while its leaping lines recall the opening of Tippett’s Concerto for double string orchestra. Here, however, we have some wind instruments added and they are given a chance to shine in the slow first part of the second movement. The second part of this movement is a lively tarantella.

The instant moment is a song cycle to five poems by D. H. Lawrence. These celebrate his love affair with Frieda Weekley, whom he later married. It is hard now to appreciate the admiration, not to say reverence, which Lawrence inspired in many people in the middle years of the twentieth century. This brought about an inevitable reaction and he is probably rather underestimated now. Joubert explains in his own, most informative, sleeve-note, that he took the title of his work from a passage by Lawrence in which he characterises his verse as “the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment”. I must admit that I find Lawrence’s artistic aims, personality and a good deal of his work quite antipathetic – and I read a good deal of it at one time – so it is a tribute to say that I enjoyed this work more than I expected to. I suppose the moral is that the words need to inspire the composer, but that they do not need to inspire the listener. This is a much darker and more sombre work than its two companions and it takes us into some disturbing territory. If I liked the poems more I would say it was a companion for baritone voice to Britten’s song-cycles for tenor.

The Instant moment and Temps perdu were both commissioned by the English String Orchestra so these performances have obvious authority, enhanced by the presence of the composer’s son and daughter among them. Henry Herford is a veteran of modern English works and makes a characteristically vigorous contribution. All three performances derive from a festival of Joubert’s music in 1987. The recording, despite its age, is clean and clear. We should be grateful to Naxos and the British Music Society for arranging this reissue and hope there will be others to follow.

Stephen Barber

Reviews of previous release (British Music Society): Neil Horner and Nick Barnard

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