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John JOUBERT (b.1927)
Piano Concerto Op. 25 (1957) [31.59]
Symphony No. 3 Op. 178 (2014-2017) [33.17]
Martin Jones (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/ William Boughton
rec. 2017, Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, Wales
LYRITA SRCD397 [65.16]

Two magnificent works which come, almost, from either end of the long and prolific career of South African-born John Joubert, now in his 91st year. Why the exciting Piano concerto has had to wait so long to be recorded or even performed again is quite beyond me. The symphony of course is only recent and, I gather, will prove to be almost his last work. For this CD Lyrita has worked alongside the BBC which broadcast both pieces just a couple of months before its release.

The Piano Concerto is in three movements, with the outer ones displaying incredible energy, even violence at times. Indeed, it must be very tempting for the soloist to bash the piano heartlessly as he is confronted with the wild sounds of the orchestra. The material is typical however. Joubert’s melodies and often his harmonies are based on fourths and fifths but the chord which opens the slow movement is distinctly atmospheric and outside the diatonic harmonies established elsewhere. It’s like a hot African savannah, steamy and hazy, out of which a sinewy melody miraculously emerges.

The first performance of this work took place in the seemingly unlikely venue of Hull City Hall in 1956. At that time Joubert was lecturing at the University, a post he held for over a decade before becoming a ‘Reader in Music’ at Birmingham University. It is not quite correct to say that it is not a showy work – there is a brief cadenza at the opening of the third movement – but it could be seen as more of a Sinfonia Concertante. Piano and orchestra act in partnership to present the material with the composer’s usual clarity of expression, deftly avoiding too much banality or extravagance. In fact Paul Conway’s excellently detailed notes also mention ‘a beguiling sense of innocence about the music’s tender moments.”

For those who know Joubert’s later music, there is much here that might surprise. It is, after all, young man’s music and still possesses many of the fingerprints to be found in, say, the 2nd symphony, such as dynamic energy, patterns consisting of sequentially rising fourths, melodies which begin with a rising major 7th and harmonies with strong open fifths.

These fingerprints are also audible in the Symphony No 3, which is based on the story-line and more particularly on themes from his last opera, a work he wrote from the sheer personal need to compose it, Jane Eyre. This received its first performance in Birmingham as part of the celebrations accompanying the composer’s 90th birthday in 2017. It soon appeared on a splendid CD. Now we can hear how he has taken some of this material a step further. Always symphonic in approach, the opera therefore spawns a new way of hearing its leitmotifs, if we may call them such, and casts a stronger light on their beauty. Be warned that more than even two hearings are necessary to grasp its subtleties.

One difference between these two contrasting works lies in the orchestration. The symphony is less crude, or perhaps I should say more impressionistic and subtly coloured – amazingly so, considering the modest size of the orchestra. Not that I wish to imply that the concerto has rough edges, rather that its emphasis on unabashed drive leads to brightly hued, colouristic properties which grab you more immediately by the collar.

The composer tells us that, having finished the opera, he realized that some cuts were necessary and not only to the story-line, so he removed the orchestral interludes. It might be remembered that the orchestral interludes in his much earlier opera ‘Under Western Eyes’ are considered performable as concert items. So how far can Joubert’s 3rd be regarded as a coherent symphony. Is it more of an old style ‘Symphonic suite’ on themes from the opera? What is it that connects the movements?

The work has five movements that take you through the plot. The form is unique but its classical basis can be discerned. Movement 1 opens with eerie tremolando strings and the scene at Lowood School and with its impending doom. The tempo is Lento. Thornfield house is the scene of movement 2. It begins almost like a May morning, with a rather disturbed waltz as its central section. One might interpret the third movement as a scherzo. It is not, as the CD tells us, preceded by a slow opening. The fourth is an Allegro, also with a tense opening, full of foreboding, in which is depicted ‘Whitecross Rectory’, Jane’s unhappy refuge. Finally we have the longest movement, in which all of the themes are played out in a big Allegro canvas which, with its hard-won ending, not only sums up the entire opera and symphony but in some way Joubert’s whole composing career. It is a fitting climax to his work as a symphonist.

All of this music is approachable, emotional and sincere, full of richness and marvellously performed under the direction of William Boughton, a conductor who has given many performances and who has made previous recordings of Joubert’s works. He is suitably and happily pictured in the booklet having a coffee with the composer.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: John Quinn

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