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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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John JOUBERT (b.1927)
Organ Music

Reflections on a Martyrdom, Op.141 (1997)* [13:51]
Prelude on the Old Hundredth, Op.15 (1955)* [2:37]
Six Short Preludes on English Hymn Tunes, Op.125 (1990) [13:42]
Prelude on ‘Picardy’, Op.55 (1967) [2:38]
Prelude on ‘York’, Op.152 (2004)* [6:33]
Recessional, Op.135 (1998) [3:27]
Passacaglia and Fugue, Op.35 (1961) [11:47]
Tom Winpenny (organ of St Albans Cathedral)
rec. Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, St Albans, Hertfordshire, 10 and 11 August 2016
* First recordings
Full organ specification included
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
TOCCATA TOCC0398 [55:30]

There are more recordings of John Joubert’s music than I had thought and his 90th birthday has brought more: Jane Eyre (Somm SOMMCD263-2) – Recording of the Month – and South of the Line (SOMMCD0166) – review.  Both of those are reviewed by John Quinn, who has also contributed an article John Joubert at 90 here. Somm had already given us a 2-CD set of Joubert’s chamber and instrumental music (SOMMCD060), available for streaming from Naxos Music Library.

The fact remains, I imagine, that most readers will be familiar with only a handful of his works, as I must admit that I was. You can actually find more online about John Joubert the mass murderer than his composer namesake, which must be even more annoying than the jokes which I get about the Beach Boys.

There’s Torches! of course, familiar from the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s – 11 recordings of that – and two first-rate Lyrita CDs. His First Symphony is coupled with that of William Mathias on SRCD.340, also on a recent super-bargain bundle of British Symphonies (SRCD.2355 – Recording of the Month review review review) and his Cello Concerto in two movements with cello concertos by Robert Simpson and Christopher Wright on SRCD.344 – review review. Though the latter has received high praise – Recording of the Month – I have to admit that it places Joubert’s music in tandem with other works which I found hard to digest – DL News 2015/1. Then there’s his Second Symphony on Dutton, with music by William Alwyn and Carlo Martelli (CDLX7270) – review review DL News 2015/3 – and that was about the sum total of my knowledge of John Joubert.

I’ve already admitted to finding some of these works hard going but the organ music is a more attractive proposition without being in any way facile. I’m very grateful to Toccata for its availability and in such sympathetic performances. I haven’t done the maths on this but I rather fancy that Toccata have brought us more première recordings of British music in the last few years than any other label while at the same time introducing us to neglected works from other countries. In addition to the works indicated with an asterisk as première recordings, there are no other current recordings of any of the other works apart from Passacaglia and Fugue, which features on a Priory album of Joubert’s choral music (PRCD1028).

This organ album follows a Toccata recording, from 2006, devoted to four Joubert Song Cycles and other works, again first recordings and made in the composer’s presence (TOCC0045 – review review). That, too, is available from MusicWeb-International 1 and as a download from (16-bit only and NO booklet but you can download a copy of any Toccata booklet from their website). I downloaded that and can endorse those earlier reviews; though the lack of booklet and texts presents a problem, these are available to subscribers to Naxos Music Library, where the album can be streamed – here – as can the new organ recording – here.

Tom Winpenny already has to his credit a most impressive discography, mostly made on the organ of St Albans Abbey where he is Assistant Master of the Music. For Toccata he has recorded the organ works of Malcolm Williamson (TOCC02462) and I reviewed his Resonus recordings of the music of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (RES10104 – on the organ of Queens’ College, Cambridge: DL Roundup June 2011/1), the organ works of John McCabe (RES10144 – DL News 2015/2) and the organ music of Lennox and Michael Berkeley (RES10119 – DL News 2013/7), the two latter at St Albans. Much as I enjoyed these, the new Toccata recording is in the same class.

If I say that Joubert’s organ music is at once firmly in the English tradition and strongly influenced by Bach I’m both simplifying and stating the obvious: even the words ‘prelude’ and ‘passacgalia and fugue’ are sufficient to hint at the Bach influence. A good example of his style comes on track 6, one of the Six Short Preludes, in this case on what I consider one of the most haunting of hymn tunes: known as Picardy it accompanies the Eucharistic hymn ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ and it always sends shivers down my spine. Joubert’s piece is a prelude very much in line of descent from Bach’s Chorale Preludes but on a hymn as well known to English churchgoers as those Lutheran chorales were to the citizens of Leipzig.

Picardy seems to haunt Joubert as much as it does me: there’s another, longer prelude on the same tune on track 12 but this time the treatment is less direct, more by way of mystical contemplation on the theme. You’ll find a similar meditative approach to the well-known poem Adlestrop in his Landscapes, included on SOMMCD060.

Though Joubert’s notes specifically exclude only the opening Reflections on a Martyrdom and Recessional from ‘the same mould as the chorale preludes in Bach’s Orgelbüchlein, with the Anglican hymn now taking the place of the Lutheran chorale as the main source of material’, I hear much more influence from French organ composers in the Picardy Prelude and its successor, the Prelude on York, track 13. In the case of Picardy the style is perfectly appropriate for a tune that began its life in France. Though it always seems to me to have more of an Eastern Mediterranean feel, that may simply be because the English hymn is a translation from Greek; sigesato pasa sarx broteia from the Liturgy of St James.

It often seems to me that record companies put the cart before the horse and end a programme with a lesser work. That’s not the case here: the recording is bookended by two powerful works, the opening Reflections based on Joubert’s cantata on the martyrdom of St Alban 3 – what better work could there be for the organ of the abbey which is believed to stand on the very spot where he was killed – and the closing Passacaglia and Fugue, though in no way imitative of Bach, is as powerful as anything that the master composed, as seen through centuries of later development: the notes mention Bach’s BWV582 and Reger as part of the mix.

Throughout the programme Tom Winpenny offers a sure guide to all this music. This is ‘his’ organ and he knows how to get the best out of it. Moreover it’s entirely suited to Joubert’s music, both the full-scale works such as the Passacaglia and Fugue and the Six Short Preludes for a single-manual chamber organ with only five stops. The recording, in 24-bit sound, does the instrument and the performances full justice.

Toccata booklets have overtaken even Hyperion as role models on how to do things. There’s no superfluous artwork such as clutters up the recent Volume 4 in Alpha’s series of Haydn Symphonies to the exclusion of any information about the music apart from platitudes about the Haydn 2032 project, repeated from previous volumes. Toccata give us a biographical note on Joubert and reflections on his organ music, both by the performer, Tom Winpenny, and notes from Joubert himself on the music together with notes on Winpenny, a photograph of the St Albans organ (1962, rebuilt 2007-2009), details of its history and a complete specification of the same.

I have been listening to several fine recordings from Toccata recently – it’s became almost a cliché to praise their entrepreneurism – and I’m constantly on the look-out for recommendable recordings of organ music. This is one of the best in both categories.

1 Please follow this link rather than the ones with the reviews.

2 We seem not to have reviewed TOCC0246. I downloaded that from (16-bit, with pdf booklet) and it can be purchased on CD from MusicWeb-International. The main work is his Organ Symphony, available only in this first-rate performance and from Tom Bell (Harrison organ, Durham Cathedral) on Regent REGCD409, with music by Bliss and Elgar. Don’t confuse Malcolm Williamson’s organ music with that of J R Williamson whose Organ Sonata features on a recording by Ronald Frost on the organ of St Ann’s Manchester (Dunelm DRD-1250), is now download only.

3 perhaps we could have a recording of the original cantata, too.

Brian Wilson



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