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John Joubert at Ninety
by John Quinn

John Joubert, September 2008
© Graham Boulton
This article was first published by MusicWeb International in 2012 to mark the 85th birthday of John Joubert. In honour of his 90th birthday I have revised and updated it. The revisions to the original text are minor. However, I have added a section at the end in which I mention pieces composed since 2012 and also recordings that have appeared since then.

John Joubert was born in Cape Town on 20 March 1927. His mother was an accomplished pianist who had studied with Harriet Cohen and it was from his mother that Joubert received his first groundings in music. In his early years he was very interested in painting and a 1942 self-portrait, reproduced on the cover of a CD of his first three string quartets, suggests a precocious talent. However, music claimed him and he began composing while still at school. Initially he received tuition from the English émigré William Henry Bell (1873-1946), a pupil of Stanford who had been Director of the South African College of Music since arriving in the country in 1912. In 1946 Joubert won a Performing Rights Society scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. During his four years at the Academy his teachers included Howard Ferguson and, briefly, Alan Bush. Among the prizes that he was awarded during his student days in London were the Lionel Tertis Prize (for a viola concerto) and the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize (for an orchestral piece entitled Symphonic Study.) So far as I am aware neither of these prize-winning pieces have been published or given opus numbers by the composer. During his time at the Academy Joubert also successfully studied, as an external student, for the degree of B. Mus. from Durham University.

On leaving the Royal Academy Joubert earned a living as an academic while continuing to pursue his composing career. From 1950 to 1962 he lectured in music at Hull University. From there he moved to Birmingham University where he held a series of increasingly senior posts in the music faculty before taking early retirement in 1986 to devote himself completely to composition.

John Joubert’s catalogue of works is extensive and he has written in most genres. His orchestral works include two symphonies (1955 & 1970) and a third has recently been completed. There are concertos for violin, piano, bassoon, oboe and, most recently, for cello. His chamber music output includes four string quartets, the first three of which have been brought together in première recordings on a single SOMM CD by the Brodsky Quartet. His operatic portfolio includes three full-length operas, Silas Marner (Cape Town, 1961), Under Western Eyes (1968) and Jane Eyre (1987-97). There are also a number of pieces for piano and organ solo.

The human voice has been, perhaps, the main focus of Joubert’s career as a composer and the list of compositions on his website includes ten works for chorus and orchestra, starting with The Choir Invisible (1968) and ending (so far) with An English Requiem. I’ve had only limited opportunities to attend live performances of pieces by Joubert but, purely by coincidence, I can claim to have been present at the premières of both The Choir Invisible and An English Requiem. His catalogue also boasts a steady stream of works for choir, both accompanied and unaccompanied, including two sets of Evening Canticles (1968 & 1984).

Joubert’s 80th birthday was widely celebrated in 2007 as a ‘Joubertiade.’ The principal focus of the celebrations was Birmingham, where he still lives, but there were events and performances at many other venues in the UK and several recordings of his music were released or re-issued. A highlight in the list of recordings was the long-delayed first release of his First Symphony in what is surely a definitive reading by Vernon Handley (review).

Three years later the composer was fêted again, albeit in only one location this time, when Adrian Partington invited him to be composer in residence at the 2010 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. That festival included a significant celebration of Joubert’s music. The works performed included a Jubilate, commissioned for the opening service, his Passacaglia and Fugue Op 35 for organ, a new set of Responses for the broadcast of Choral Evensong by the BBC, the orchestral piece Temps Perdu and, at the heart of the Festival programme, the first performance of the major commission, An English Requiem (review).

John Joubert remains very much an active force in British musical life. His Seek the Lord was one of 44 anthems written by a veritable Who’s Who of British composers for the new collection Choirbook for the Queen, to celebrate Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Raphael Wallfisch gave the first performances of a new Cello Concerto in March of that year and he subsequently made a recording for Lyrita (review). Also on the recording front, after their important set of Joubert’s chamber music, issued to mark his 80th birthday (review), SOMM Records released a disc containing the first three of his string quartets in performances by the Brodsky Quartet. Their reading of the Second Quartet was taken from the previous SOMM set but the First and Third Quartets appeared on disc for the first time. All of these three Brodsky performances are première recordings (review).


John Joubert probably in the early 1960s
©John Joubert
Joubert on Disc
Until a few years ago Joubert’s representation on disc was sparse, like that of so many British composers of his generation. However, the situation has now improved with several significant releases.

His first two symphonies are now available: the First, Op. 20 (1955) in a Lyrita recording by Vernon Handley and the Second, Op. 68 (1970) in an equally important issue from Dutton Epoch. The First Symphony, a taut four-movement work that last just over half an hour, was commissioned by the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra and first performed by them, under the direction of Vilem Tausky, in 1956. Hearing it in Handley’s fine recording (review) it’s remarkable that such a piece could have been written for and undertaken by an amateur orchestra for it doesn’t treat the players with kid gloves. The first movement is lively and one notes that the orchestral scoring is not at all heavy. The music is alert and sprightly, requiring dexterous playing to do justice to the strong rhythmic impetus. The second movement is much more serious and rhetorical – the composer describes it as “tragic” in tone. It’s interesting to read Joubert’s comment that at this stage much of the music of Shostakovich, who was to become a significant influence, was either unknown to him or had yet to be written. Despite this, stretches of the movement seem to breathe a chill air, similar to what we often encounter in Shostakovich’s output. The third movement, a Presto, is vital and full of almost demonic energy. The finale begins with a slow introduction. Apparently, Joubert revised this section after the première, expanding it significantly; in Handley’s account it accounts for some 40% of the movement’s duration. It’s serious, dramatic stuff and includes an especially memorable passage for the string section. Once launched, the main allegro is much more outgoing and genial than anything heard previously in the symphony and the work achieves a thoroughly positive conclusion. Joubert has written that this symphony represents his “coming of age” as a composer; this succinct and expressive piece shows him attaining what one might call his compositional age of majority with considerable confidence.

The Second Symphony followed fifteen years later and was prompted by a Royal Philharmonic Society commission. It’s quite a bit shorter than its predecessor – playing for some twenty-two minutes in the fine recording conducted by Martin Yates (review) – and the music is a lot grittier than that of the First Symphony. Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us for the work represents Joubert’s response to the notorious 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in his native South Africa. It’s interesting to learn that an inspiration was provided by Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony (a seriously underrated work, in my view) and that just as the Soviet master included traditional melodies from his homeland in his score so Joubert worked into his own symphony three traditional African tunes. The work is in one continuous movement, within which there are two main sections. The first of these is desolate and tragic in tone. The music is darkly powerful and very intense, demanding of listeners and performers. There’s a far higher level of overt dissonance than was the case in the First Symphony and, indeed, it seems as if Joubert has expanded and ratcheted up by several notches the tragic mood that informed the second movement of his earlier symphony. The second section contains music of considerable energy, even violence; it is percussive in nature even when the percussion section is not playing. Eventually (at track 2, 8:30) this vigorous music gives way to an extensive quiet episode in which a solo horn plays against soft strings. The horn’s melody is the third of the African tunes – a Zulu lament – and, though this may just be coincidental, this section reminds me quite a lot of the passage in the third movement of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony where the horn quietly intones the DSCH motif several times. A final burst of heated energy, reminiscent of the con malizia movement of Walton’s B flat minor symphony, brings the symphony to an end.

These symphonies are considerable creations and deserve a wide audience. Since, sadly, public performances are likely to be few and far between we must be grateful that both have been so well served on disc. One other CD of orchestral music, originally issued by BMS and now available from Naxos, includes his Temps Perdu: Variations for String Orchestra, Op. 99 (1984) – a piece I particularly admire; it’s right in the distinguished lineage of English string orchestra works. The disc also contains the Sinfonietta, Op. 38 (1962) and the song cycle, The Instant Moment, Op. 110 (1986) (review ~ review).

Joubert’s chamber music was particularly well served by a SOMM issue, timed to celebrate the composer’s 80th birthday (review). This two-disc set included all three of his piano sonatas, played by fellow-composer, John McCabe. Of these, the Sonata No 1 in One Movement, Op 24 (1957) only lasts for some fourteen minutes but packs a lot into a short time span. Its principal musical ingredients are a central scherzo section - an impetuous, irrepressible central tarantella – on either side of which is heard some thoughtful chorale-like material. The Second Sonata, Op. 71 (1972) is a much bigger work. Though it opens innocently enough the music grows purposefully and the mood becomes much more serious and powerfully rhetorical. There’s a fairly high dissonance quotient and the tonality seems ambiguous. The second movement is urgent and propulsive but the progress of the fast music is eventually impeded by a powerful, slower episode, announced by majestic chordal sequences. Then the presto resumes with renewed vigour, sweeping the movement to a percussive, breathless ending. The finale is the longest movement and it takes the form of a passacaglia. The stealthy opening is either mysterious or ominous – the listener can’t be sure – and thereafter Joubert builds the movement impressively up to and back from more than one climax. I must admit that there are times, as the music becomes more complex and dissonant, when I struggle to discern the passacaglia structure – it’s not as clear as in the comparable movement of the Piano Trio – but I’m sure the fault is mine.

The Third Sonata, Op. 157 (2006) is inspired by Thomas Hardy and bears a relationship to the 1985 cantata, South of the Line in which Joubert set poems by Hardy. Particularly impressive is the central movement, Lento e calmo, which accounts for half the length of the entire sonata and which offers much-needed repose after the rigours of the first movement. The outer stretches of this slow movement contain lovely, poised music while the central section – allegretto agitato – doesn’t lose sight of the material from the lento but encases it in bursts of pianistic pyrotechnics. The theme of the vigorous march, which ends the sonata, is taken from South of the Line

Pianist Mark Bebbington contributes a performance of the Lyric Fantasy for Piano, Op 144 (2000) on themes from the opera, Jane Eyre. Joubert comments that he didn’t want this piece to be a display vehicle like the paraphrases of Liszt. The Fantasy largely derives from music for the love scene between Jane and Rochester. It’s a romantic piece, often passionate in tone, even when the music is quiet. There’s no virtuosic note-spinning in the manner of Liszt – thank goodness – but instead we have a very satisfying piece which, as its title implies, is strongly lyrical.

The SOMM set also includes two works involving piano trio. There’s Landscapes, Op. 129 for Soprano and Piano Trio (1992) and the work which has become my own favourite among the Joubert chamber pieces that I’ve heard to date, the Piano Trio, Op. 113 (1986). This is a marvellous work, cast in three movements. The first, ’Aria’, seems to me to be really well laid out for the three instruments. The movement lives up to its title because the excellent principal theme has a real vocal quality to it. There’s a strong lyrical vein running throughout this lovely movement. The following ‘Sonata’ is underpinned by strong, vigorous rhythms but much use is made of a long-breathed lyrical idea, first heard on the cello (at 1:31). Finally comes a wonderful, inventive and varied passacaglia which, once again, seems to be expertly laid out for the three players. The performance is quite splendid and it’s especially pleasing that the cellist is the composer’s daughter, Anna.

SOMM also included in their 80th birthday album the Second String Quartet, Op 91 (1977). That performance of the quartet, by the Brodsky Quartet, was subsequently recycled by SOMM and coupled with brand-new performances, also by the Brodskys, of Joubert’s First and Third string quartets, which date respectively from 1950 and 1986. This disc was the subject of an appreciative review by Hubert Culot. I share Hubert’s enthusiasm. It seems to me that all three performances by the Brodsky Quartet are superb. They bring commitment and, I think, great understanding and sympathy to all the music. All are first recordings: the performance of the Second Quartet dates from 2006 while the First and Third Quartets were set down in June 2011.

The First Quartet (1950) is designated as Joubert’s official Op. 1. It is a student work, written in his last year at the Royal Academy though one would scarcely know that, such is the assurance of the writing. Joubert admits to the influence of Walton. Another influence – equally, if not more, important - was surely his relationship with his future wife, Mary, a pianist and fellow student at the Academy, to whom the work is dedicated. In a note accompanying the disc Joubert’s former pupil, Elaine Gould, writes of the “joyous rapture” of the outer movements. In the first of these the music just seems to pour out; it’s quite exhilarating. The second, however, is deep and reflective and permeated, says Elaine Gould, by the composer’s nostalgia for his native South Africa. The finale is energetic though there’s a brief contemplative passage which seems to me to revisit the mood of the second movement.

The Second Quartet, Op. 91 (1977) is informed by two key influences: Beethoven’s Op. 135 Quartet and the music of Shostakovich. Indeed, the third of the quartet’s four movements is an explicit memorial to the Russian composer and near the end we hear the famous DSCH motif on the viola. I hear definite echoes of Bartók and Shostakovich in the powerful writing in the first movement. The second movement, marked Allegro vivace, is driving and often dissonant. The Brodskys deliver this propulsive music with great virtuosity. The third movement broods, as befits a tribute to Shostakovich. One notes the prominence of the cello line in the opening pages. This is music of great tension. There’s a faster, somewhat shadowy central section before the brooding, slow music returns. I think Shostakovich would have approved. The fourth movement follows without a break and here, for the most part, the music wears a lighter countenance. This movement is a good foil to the intensities of the preceding movements, though in the middle there’s a reminder of the predominantly intense disposition of the whole work.

The DSCH motif crops up again in the opening movement of the Third Quartet, Op. 112 (1987). This is an energetic, purposeful movement. It’s followed by a slow fugue, marked Molto lento. This is grave music of real emotional weight and depth. The composer describes the finale as a “lighter-weight contrast to the intensity of the first two movements.” That may be so but even here there are moments of seriousness. Elaine Gould comments that Joubert‘s quartets “represent the most personal utterances of his instrumental output” and there’s no doubt that all three works on this disc contain a lot of important and carefully considered music. One hopes that these fine first recordings will bring them to the attention of a wider audience.

Joubert’s vocal music is represented on disc by a Toccata Classics CD of songs, which I have not heard (review) and by issues of some of his choral music. These include two discs devoted entirely to his music. There’s the 1975 BMS recording by the Louis Halsey Singers (review) and a much more recent disc, from 2009, by Gloucester Cathedral Choir (review). Happily, there’s no duplication between the two programmes. The Halsey disc is a good one though the Gloucester disc strikes me as being even finer. The Gloucester programme includes the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in A, Op. 57, which Joubert wrote in 1968 for St. George’s Cathedral in his native Cape Town. As I wrote in my review, these Canticles are one of the most arresting compositions in the genre that I can recall hearing. Five Songs of Incarnation, Op. 163 (2007) is also a very impressive work but, then, all the music on this disc is well worth hearing. All the music comes in excellent performances from the Gloucester Cathedral choir under Adrian Partington.

A number of Joubert’s shorter choral works, especially Torches, have appeared on disc in mixed programmes. It’s not possible to list all of these here but let me just mention a handful of the best that I’ve heard. His Whitsun Carol, Op. 115b, a BBC commission for the choir of New College, Oxford, is performed by the choir for which it was written on one of the discs in their Twentieth-Century Masters series (review). The Christmas piece, Joy in the morning appears on a fascinating Christmas disc of the same name by Ex Cathedra, a choir which has done much to champion Joubert’s work (review). Finally, A Hymne to God the Father, Op. 114, a fine setting of words by John Donne, appears on an outstanding disc by the Chamber Choir of Birmingham Conservatoire under Paul Spicer, entitled To Music. This piece was commissioned in 1987, at Spicer’s instigation, to mark the composer’s 60th birthday. As I said in my review of the CD, “The singing is superb and highly committed and Spicer and his choir give a performance that’s wholly worthy of a distinguished piece.“

Despite these excellent recordings, a good deal of John Joubert’s output remains unrecorded although three very welcome and important releases have been timed to mark his 90th birthday. The chamber music is pretty well served though several works remain to be recorded, so far as I know, including the Fourth String Quartet, Op. 121 (1988). The two symphonies have been recorded but I have never heard some of Joubert’s other major orchestral scores and the likelihood is that recordings will remain the most likely way to encounter such pieces. Perhaps Dutton Epoch could follow up their enterprise in recording the Second Symphony by looking at some of the unrecorded concertos, such as the Violin Concerto, Op. 13 (1954) or the Piano Concerto, Op. 25 (1958).

It seems to me, however, that the greatest gap in the Joubert discography lies in the field of his output for chorus and orchestra. Inevitably, because these works require sizeable forces, they are costly to perform and it is questionable whether many choral societies will feel able to mount a performance – and to take the financial risk in so doing. Therefore, recordings are badly needed if these pieces are to reach a wider audience. As a teenager, I attended the first performance of The Choir Invisible, Op. 54 in 1968; it had been commissioned by the Choral Society in Halifax, my home town, to mark their 150th anniversary and the composer conducted the performance with Thomas Hemsley as the baritone soloist. I must confess, however, that I was too young and musically far too inexperienced for the work to make a mark on me. I wonder how many subsequent performances there have been: to the best of my knowledge it has never been revived by the choir that commissioned it. Out of personal curiosity, at the very least, I’d welcome another chance to hear it and a recording is probably the only opportunity I’ll have.

A work that did make a mark with me, however, was An English Requiem, Op. 166, commissioned for and premièred at the 2010 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. I had the good fortune to cover that concert for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard and I refer readers to my review for a description of the piece. It’s not always easy to appreciate a new work on a first hearing but this piece made a strong impression on me. It struck me as a profound and eloquent work. Sadly, the very fine performance under Adrian Partington’s committed direction was not recorded but this noble piece is very worthy of wider dissemination through a recording.

When I originally wrote this piece about John Joubert in 2012 the Birmingham-based choir, Ex Cathedra generously loaned me an archive copy of their recording of South of the Line, Op. 109 (1985), which I’d not previously heard. In this work, as in the Second Symphony, Joubert revisited a difficult episode in the history of his native South Africa. In this case it was the Boer War of 1899-1902 and he set five poems by Thomas Hardy about this conflict. The Ex Cathedra recording was no longer available and that remains the case. That’s a pity for my memory is that it was an estimable performance, as one would expect from this fine choir. Happily, this particular gap in the catalogue has just been filled by a brand-new recording of South of the Line conducted by Paul Spicer (see below). It would be good, though if Ex Cathedra’s recording reappeared one day.

It would be even better, however, if a way could be found for them to make a recording of Wings of Faith, Op. 143 (2000, 2003). Once again through the generosity of Ex Cathedra I was fortunate enough to hear in 2012 a private archive recording of the 2007 première and it made a deep impression on me. The work was commissioned by Ex Cathedra to mark the Millennium but, in the event, only Part I was finished in time for a performance in 2000. The second part of the work was completed in 2003 and Ex Cathedra gave the first performance of the full score, conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, in March 2007. This remarkable work, which lasts for nearly two hours in performance, calls for several vocal soloists, chorus and (I suspect) a separate semi chorus – I’ve not seen a score – an instrumental ensemble of strings, woodwind and percussion as well as piano and organ. Part I, which Joubert has entitled ’The Word Fulfilled’, begins at the empty tomb, following the Resurrection of Christ, and relates the story in the Gospels through to Christ’s Ascension. In Part II, ‘The Transforming Spirit’, Joubert’s librettist, Stephen Tunnicliffe, weaves together a narrative of several episodes from the history of the infant Christian Church, starting at Pentecost and passing through events such as the martyrdom of St Stephen and the Damascene conversion of St Paul, culminating, in the composer’s words, in “St. Peter’s vision of a Universal Church”.

Having heard this fine and moving work I’m in no doubt that it is a major contribution to the English choral tradition. The music brims with conviction and the vocal writing, both for soloists and chorus, is the work of a composer who wants to write for voices and who knows how to do so to achieve the maximum expressive effect. Joubert’s scoring of the accompaniment is colourful, consistently apt for the words that are being sung and very interesting. The listener regularly feels that a larger orchestra is being used than is actually the case but the accompaniment is shrewd: it never swamps the voices. There are some demanding solo sections, some of which are really memorable, not least the ecstatic tenor solo for St. Stephen – truly the music of a young visionary – and the dramatic baritone aria for Saul. As in the Bach Passions, there’s an important part for a narrator but this role is spoken in Joubert’s work. In lesser hands this libretto could have become just a series of musical tableaux but the fashioning of the libretto is skilful and librettist and composer weave the whole work into a seamless and convincing whole. To me, Wings of Faith melds the traditions of the Bach Passions and English oratorio together with Joubert’s own individual musical persona. It’s an important score and I hope that somehow a way may be found to bring it to a wider audience through a commercial recording.

Though John Joubert has written many important orchestral and chamber works, some of which have been mentioned above, it seems to me that, in time, we may reach the conclusion that his most important contribution lies in the field of vocal and choral music. The conductor Jeffrey Skidmore, who has had a lifetime’s experience of Joubert’s music, has written that he sees Joubert’s output as “part of a great succession - Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Tippett, Joubert, MacMillan …” That seems to be to be a very fair assessment and to those who do not know Joubert’s music I would suggest that if you respond to all or any of the composers in that list then you will find much to admire and enjoy among his pieces.

Music and Recordings since 2012

John Joubert remains active as a composer, as evidenced by the list of works on his website, which continues to expand. The recent additions to his catalogue have continued his great love of writing for the human voice. New works have included Three Villanelles for soprano and recorder (or oboe) and That Time of Year for baritone and piano. Both of these pieces bear the date 2013. From the same year come four works for chorus: a setting of In the Bleak Midwinter; another seasonal piece, Love came down at Christmas; a motet, Locus Iste; and Missa Wellensis. I presume that the latter was written for the choir of Wells Cathedral, as was another work – and an important one. This is Joubert’s setting of the St Mark Passion, Op 180 (2015). This piece was commissioned by the Wells choir and first performed by them under the direction of Matthew Owens on Palm Sunday, 20 March 2016. The piece is scored for chorus with two tenor and three baritone soloists accompanied by cello and organ. I gather that Joubert weaves into his score a number of well-known Passiontide hymns in the manner of the chorales in the Bach Passions. The Wells Cathedral choir has a notable track record for recording new music that they have commissioned so we must hope that somehow they will be able to arrange to record this Passion setting. They will sing the work again in Wells Cathedral on Palm Sunday, 9 April 2017. That will be as part of a service commencing at 3.00pm.

John Joubert has recently completed a Third Symphony. The basis for this score is a series of five orchestral interludes which he excised from his very fine opera Jane Eyre. I hope that this score will achieve a first performance soon.

Since 2012 there have been some recordings of Joubert pieces with his 90th birthday acting as a particular stimulus in this respect.

His very fine Concerto in Two Movements for Cello and Chamber Orchestra, Op 171 was completed in 2011 and was premiered by Raphael Wallfisch, for whom it was written. In December 2013 it was one of three concertos by various British composers which Wallfisch and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under William Boughton recorded for Lyrita. When the disc was issued two of my MusicWeb International colleagues welcomed it, and deservedly so (review ~ review). The concerto plays for 23 minutes in this performance and consists of two movements that are almost identical in duration. It is scored for a modest orchestra of double woodwind, two horns and strings and I think that the absence of brass or any percussion contributes significantly to the mellow ambience of the work. Both movements open with attention-grabbing cello solos. In his booklet note Paul Conway comments that the solo part is “tailored to the eloquent, vocal qualities of Wallfisch’s playing”. Much of the first movement seems to me to carry an air of autumnal wistfulness. There are some strong passages but a good deal of the music seems quite inward-looking and ruminative. The end is very original: intriguing orchestral chords gradually diminish until all that is left is a very soft chord on the solo cello. After the introductory cello solo the second movement gathers pace into an Allegro vivace. Here the music is deft and nimble, displaying a good deal of energy and rhythmic vitality. About half-way through there’s an interesting fugal section in which the soloist is joined by two violins and a viola – a string quartet episode, in fact. That’s followed by a quasi-cadenza in which the cello contemplates material previously heard. When the orchestra becomes involved again the remainder of the movement is animated and dance-like. This concerto is a notable work and it’s good to have it on disc in such a fine performance.

There’s also been a recording of Joubert’s Concerto for Oboe and Strings Op 160 (2006). That was on another disc of music by various composers. I’ve not yet heard it but my colleague, Gary Higginson, who is well versed in Joubert’s music (see below) was most enthusiastic, describing the work as “emotionally cohesive and deeply impressive.” (review)

A gratifying number of discs has been issued in 2017 to celebrate John Joubert’s 90th birthday. For Toccata Classics Tom Winpenny has recorded a disc containing the composer’s complete output for solo organ This is a fine disc which includes the Passacaglia and Fugue, Op 35 and Reflections on a Martyrdom, Op 141 together with a number of Preludes (review).  

Resonus Classics has released a disc of three very recent choral works composed for Wells Cathedral Choir. All of them were premiered by the choir between 2013 and 2016. There’s the short anthem Locus iste, Op 175 and the very fine Missa Wellensis, Op 174. Both of these works, which are for unaccompanied choir, date from 2013. Two years later Joubert completed his St. Mark Passion, Op 180. This was first heard on Palm Sunday 2016 when the Wells Cathedral Choir under Matthew Owens gave the work in a liturgical context. This is a most impressive score which concisely and compellingly relates the Passion Gospel – there are no arias, though on several occasions the narrative is interrupted by the singing of Passiontide hymns, rather in the manner of the chorales in the Bach Passions. The narration is entrusted to a solo tenor (the excellent Peter Auty) who is “shadowed” throughout by a virtuoso cello (Richard May). All the other singers are accompanied by the organ. This is an important and eloquent score and its premiere recording is very good indeed. (review). 

SOMM have continued their sterling championship of Joubert’s music with a disc of his choral music sung by the excellent Chamber Choir of Birmingham Conservatoire conducted by Paul Spicer (review). The major work on their programme is South of the Line, Op 109 and there’s a poignant touch here. The work was commissioned for the opening of the Adrian Boult Hall at the Conservatoire and the recording sessions in 2016 took place immediately prior to the demolition of the Hall as part of the relocation of the Conservatoire and the redevelopment of the site on which it had existed. So South of the Line had the distinction of being the last music heard in that much-loved hall. This is a very fine disc, which I describe in detail in my review.

Pride of place, though, must go to SOMM’s release (review) of a live performance of the opera Jane Eyre, Op 134, which took place in October 2016 (review). This is a splendid release in every respect. For a start the music is wonderful: the opera is taut and dramatic and also contains some memorable romantic episodes. Joubert and his librettist, Kenneth Birkin, have done a marvellous job in bringing out the essential elements of Charlotte Brontë’s novel in a compelling narrative. It is the achievement of this performance, however, that a very fine cast, headed by April Fredrick in the title role and David Stout as Rochester have leveraged vivid characterisations and performances off Birkin’s libretto and Joubert’s superb music. Kenneth Woods conducts a gripping performance which all admirers of the composer should hear as a matter of urgency.

Elaine Gould has written of the integrity of Joubert and also of his “single-mindedness in following his own path.” Those qualities are displayed in the works by him that I have been able to hear over the years. To Miss Gould’s comment I’d add that musical and intellectual rigour is consistently evident. It seems to me that I’ve not heard a wasted note in these pieces. And even when his music is at its most rigorous and abstract it still remains accessible: this is a composer who takes his performers and, crucially, his listeners with him. On the occasion of his ninetieth birthday John Joubert’s friends and admirers will wish him well and hope that his creative fires continue to burn for many years to come.

John Quinn
I gratefully acknowledge the help of Ex Cathedra who, when I was writing the original feature in 2012, generously made it possible for me to hear some works by John Joubert that are not commercially available, including an archive recording of the première of Wings of Faith.

John Joubert, September 2008
© Graham Boulton
The following articles were published in 2012 for John Joubert's 85th birthday.
- A tribute by John Casken
- An Appreciation by Gary Higginson
- A few personal reminiscences and a word about An English Requiem by Adrian Partington
- An Appreciation by Jeffrey Skidmore



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