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Sounds and sweet airs  

08 July 2016

Roderic Dunnett at a Joubert celebration


BORN in South Africa, but resident in Britain since the late 1940s, when he came to study at the Royal Academy of Music, John Joubert is a composer who has made his mark in almost every field of composition.

That includes notable operas based on Joseph Conrad (Under Western Eyes) and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre), and others such as Silas Marner, after George Eliot, and a school opera The Wayfarers, based on Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, as well as string quartets, concertos, and symphonies of forcefulness, substance, and importance.

Of particular relevance are Joubert’s choral works. His St Mark Passion received its première only this year at Wells Cathedral, where his new Mass setting figured prominently in the New Music Wells festival in 2013. An English Requiem similarly caused a stir when it was commissioned for the Three Choirs Festival in 2010.

Indeed, since the 1960s, sacred works have poured from his pen, including his Latin St John’s Mass, The Choir Invisible, The Beatitudes, retellings of the story of Lazarus, St Alban, Simon Magus, his admirable Herefordshire Canticles, a setting of John Donne’s A Hymne to God the Father, and, more recently,Wings of Faith. His Christmas carol for choir “Torches” is one of the most widely performed.

Joubert has always enjoyed the loyalty and support of his adoptive city, Birmingham. The recent recital by members of Birmingham Conservatoire under their conductor, Paul Spicer, confirmed how Joubert is as skilled at choosing secular texts, often with religious associations, to set as he is at approaching purely sacred works.

Here, in preparation for a recording planned for Joubert’s 90th birthday in 2017, the choice was particularly appealing: Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats, the sensual young Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne, and three spirited verses (“portraits”) by the nowadays insufficiently valued Tudor predecessor of Shakespeare John Skelton.

One of those choral works in which Joubert makes a great and immediate impact is South of the Line, a setting of five poems by Thomas Hardy centring on the celebrated lament “Drummer Hodge”. Joubert uses a forceful percussion ensemble, including vigorous xylophone, bass drum, and insistent tympani, matched by two pianists who lend essential character to the entire setting.

Here, as throughout this concert, the Conservatoire choir revealed its total professionalism: in doing so, it captured the flavour of the music and the earnestness and pathos of each poem to perfection. Not least, it brought out Joubert’s skill at enjambement of the lines — not merely mimicking the verse, but running one line into another to produce a smooth effect. In contrast, “Yet portion of that unknown plain Will Hodge for ever be” had a distinctive hymn-like serenity.

While the vitality of Joubert’s scherzo-writing — in the outer two Skelton settings, for instance — was evident, even more striking was the quality of the solo singing, not least in the Swinburne Sonnet (“O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire”), with its high-placed conclusion (“the nursing earth as the sepulchral sea”) and a superb protracted soprano solo in Yeats’s “Incantation” (“I saw a staring virgin stand”). Indeed, every one of the solo passages was meticulously rehearsed, just as the ensembles from start to finish were refined and secure.

Perhaps most moving of all was Joubert’s approach to Caliban’s “Be not afeard” speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A solo soprano weaves in and out of the textures, almost as if Ariel himself were joining in. The effect, growing to a beautiful resolution of contrasted upper and lower voices, was quite magical.

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