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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
TOCCATA TOCC0398 [55:39]

This disc arrived with me too late for consideration when I updated my article about John Joubert on the occasion of his 90th birthday earlier this year.

As far as I can tell Tom Winpenny presents here an intégrale of Joubert’s organ music. Since the programme takes less than an hour to play you might be tempted to infer that music for this instrument is a fairly unimportant element of the composer’s output. To judge by what Joubert says in the booklet, to say nothing of the quality of the music itself I believe that such is not the case.

In his foreword in the booklet John Joubert explains that he was exposed while at school to the repertoire and tradition of music for the Anglican Church, including taking organ lessons. As he himself says, all this happened at an impressionable age and I think the contents of this CD, comprising music composed over a span of nearly fifty years, indicate that this early impression was a long-lasting one. Two influences above all permeate the music in this programme: Bach and the literature of English hymnody.

These two influences come together in the various Preludes on hymn tunes that Tom Winpenny plays. Joubert’s earliest organ piece is a Prelude on the Old Hundredth. This pleasing piece begins and ends quietly but in the middle of the piece the famous tune is treated magisterially. It seems to me that, like Bach’s chorale preludes, this and all the other Joubert preludes would sit very comfortably indeed within a liturgical context.

Intriguingly, if you skip to the last of the Six Short Preludes on English Hymn Tunes you’ll find the music of Op 15 again but it’s in a different key and has been, in Tom Winpenny’s words, “judiciously adapted”. The reason for the adaptation is that these six preludes were conceived for a small chamber organ, newly built by Kenneth Tickell and Co, one of whose larger instruments graces Worcester Cathedral. The organ for which Joubert wrote, however, was on a much more modest scale than a cathedral instrument; it had but one manual and five stops and, it appears from the notes, it had neither pedals nor a swell. You would not know that this music had been written for such a limited instrument. The pieces are all very successful as compositions per se. The first one, ‘Picardy’, takes the well-known melody commonly sung to ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’. We hear the tune in the tenor register while a nimble toccata, mainly in the treble, adorns the melody. Incidentally, this piece is not a re-working of Op 55 which comes later in the programme. Another highlight of this set of preludes is ‘Southwell’ (‘Lord Jesus, think on me’) which offers an intriguing combination of the tune and a swirling moto perpetuo figuration. As I say, one is not aware that the composer was in any way limited by the scope of the instrument for which he was writing. Equally, Tom Winpenny is completely successful in translating this modestly scaled music to the large Harrison & Harrison organ in St Albans Cathedral.

In Joubert’s other Prelude on ‘Picardy’, his Op 55, the composer was able to exploit the range of a large organ. We hear the tune twice. First time round the music is subdued but on repetition the tune, at first gently decorated, grows in volume, intensity and harmonic complexity before achieving a quiet end.

The final prelude that Tom Winpenny plays is based on the great Puritan hymn, ‘York’ which Vaughan Williams used in Pilgrim’s Progress. This is the most substantial of Joubert’s organ preludes. The music is fairly restrained but the piece is still a fine rumination on the hymn tune.

You might expect Recessional to be an extrovert exit piece but it’s nothing of the kind. It was Joubert’s contribution to a collection of organ pieces written by several composers in memory of Kenneth Leighton. Joubert tells us that the piece is a transcription of a lament from his first opera, Antigone (1954). The result is slow, solemn and reflective. For the most part, the piece barely raises its voice and is no less successful for that.

The programme is book-ended by Joubert’s two most substantial organ works. The inclusion of Reflections on a Martyrdom is apt. The work itself was commissioned by the Parish Church of Saint Alban the Martyr, Birmingham and it was premiered there by Roy Massey, at that time the Organist of Hereford Cathedral. However, the origins of the organ work lie in an earlier Joubert piece, the cantata The Martyrdom of St Alban, Op 59 (1968) which was commissioned by the St Albans Chamber Choir and premiered by them in St Albans Cathedral. Joubert based the organ piece on themes from the cantata. I’ve not heard the cantata but this set of Reflections has whetted my appetite to do so. Reflections on a Martyrdom has four sections which play continuously and it’s a great help that Toccata track these sections individually. The first, ‘Recitative’ depicts the trial of Alban before a Roman magistrate; he was charged with helping a fellow Roman who had converted to Christianity. This music is dramatic. Then comes ‘Aria’ as Alban prays to be accepted as a Christian. This is a calm, thoughtful episode founded on a striking melody in Joubert’s most lyrical vein; this is heard first in the tenor register before migrating into the treble. Then comes ‘Funeral march’ as Alban is led to the place of execution. In the cantata, this precedes the ‘Aria’ music. The march transitions seamlessly from the aria so it’s helpful to have the sections tracked. The march begins in a subdued vein but soon becomes more oppressive, gaining in power. The final section is ‘Epilogue’, which is tranquil and reflective. In the booklet, the composer expresses the hope that Reflections on a Martyrdom can be thought of as a self-sufficient piece despite its programmatic origins in the cantata. All I can say is that I’ve never had the opportunity to hear the cantata yet I think the organ work is a most impressive piece. Just as an aside, I wonder if Toccata might be prevailed upon to record The Martyrdom of St Alban, perhaps using the excellent choirs and musicians of St Albans Cathedral whose work I’ve enjoyed on two or three discs in the last few years.

At the other end of the programme Tom Winpenny plays the Passacaglia and Fugue, Op.35. He describes this, rightly, as a tour de force. Joubert says he intended the piece as a tribute to Bach, whose organ music inspired it. The Passacaglia theme is heard 14 times and the varied treatment of it is both imposing and inventive. The fugue – separately tracked – is big, wide-ranging and exciting. As the music grows in volume and power the St Albans organ sounds terrific. The fugue leads with a sense of inevitability to a thrilling C major chord on full organ which is a most satisfying finis not only to the piece but also to this recital.

Throughout this programme Tom Winpenny is a splendid advocate for Joubert’s music. His understanding of it spills over into his excellent booklet note. Besides his note and a valuable short essay by the composer there’s also a very full note, again by Winpenny, about the Harrison and Harrison organ on which he plays and there’s a full specification. In other words, Toccata’s documentation is as thorough as you could wish. The music is not only splendidly played but splendidly recorded too. Producer/engineer Andrew Post has done a fine job. The organ is beautifully recorded in the quiet passages and louder sections register thrillingly.

This release is an important addition to the Joubert discography.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Brian Wilson ~ Gary Higginson



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