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John JOUBERT (b. 1927)
Missa Wellensis, Op 174 (2013) [18:02]
Locus iste, Op 175 (2013) [4:10]
St. Mark Passion, Op 180 (2015) [47:38]
Peter Auty (Narrator - tenor); Benjamin Bevan (Jesus – baritone); Richard May (cello); David Bednall (organ)
Wells Cathedral Choir/Matthew Owens
rec. 2017, Wells Cathedral, Somerset. DDD
Texts included
RESONUS CLASSICS RES10198 [69:56]

This release has been turned around in very quick time indeed. As I write this review it’s only a few days more than three months since the second set of sessions took place. The commendable speed of production means that this Resonus disc can join the others issued this year in celebration of the 90th birthday of John Joubert. I hasten to say, though, that noting about this release feels remotely like a ‘rush job’.

Matthew Owens and the choir of Wells Cathedral have done sterling work in recent years by performing and recording a good deal of recent British choral music. More than that, they have commissioned a number of new works thanks to the generous and enlightened support of the organisation, Cathedral Commissions of Wells Cathedral. All three works on this present disc were funded by Cathedral Commissions.

According to the very useful booklet note by Christopher Morley, long a champion of this composer, John Joubert’s close connection to Wells Cathedral goes back to June 2013 when he gave a composition masterclass at the renowned specialist music school linked to the Cathedral. The first two works on this disc were both heard for the first time in the Cathedral on 16 June 2013.

Missa Wellensis is for unaccompanied SATB choir with divisions. It’s a Missa brevis so it doesn’t include a Credo – such is the quality of the music that I rather regret the lack of a Credo. The Kyrie is fine movement. There’s a dramatic, minor-key opening and even at the times when the music becomes quieter there’s still plenty of tension. The central Christe is dominated by a truly lovely soprano solo; here it’s sung most attractively by Harriet Perring, one of the Wells girl choristers – both the boy and girl choristers are on duty for these recordings. When the Kyrie material recurs Joubert builds the movement up into an increasingly urgent plea for mercy. By contrast, there’s a light-infused major-key opening to the Gloria. When the ‘Domine Deus’ is reached a solo SATB quartet is involved; their music sounds rather akin to pealing bells. Most of the movement is joyful and energetic and Joubert’s use of small thematic motifs, cleverly repeated across the various voice parts, imparts momentum. The carolling solo quartet lead the ‘Amen’ which gradually winds down to a quiet close; this is slightly unexpected – but satisfying - after the energetic music that has gone before.

The Sanctus is rather thoughtful at the start. When he gets to ‘Pleni sunt caeli’ Joubert lightens the mood and sets the words to fluent fugal music, the subject of which is very long-breathed. This episode culminates in a climactic ‘Osanna’. In the Benedictus, the music is led by the SATB quartet. Essentially, this is a tranquil movement and the ‘Osanna’, though similar to what we heard in the Sanctus, is much more subdued: unless my ears deceive me, it’s sung by the quartet. The first two iterations of ‘Agnus Dei’ are quiet and reflective. For the third ‘Agnus’, however, the music becomes stronger in tone, pleading for peace. There’s another fugal passage, this time at ‘Dona nobis pacem’, and this put me in mind just a little of the music at the same juncture in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, not least because Joubert uses flowing compound time. At the end, his ‘Dona nobis pacem’ subsides to a tranquil conclusion. This is a fine setting of the Mass which I should like to hear in a liturgical context. I hope that other choirs will take it up; once learned, it would be a notable addition to their repertoire

I liked Locus iste, too. The musical material is tautly organised and, as with the Mass, Joubert makes the words and music dovetail beautifully. It’s a highly atmospheric piece for unaccompanied choir and it’s a most effective setting of the words.

I don’t know if they do it every year but on a number of occasions in recent years the Wells Cathedral Choir has sung a setting of the Passion gospel on the afternoon of Palm Sunday. The music is presented liturgically as this service takes the place of Evensong. It was in this way that they unveiled Bob Chilcott’s St John Passion in 2013 (review) and they subsequently recorded the work (review). John Joubert’s setting of the St Mark Passion was first performed, again in a liturgical context, on Palm Sunday 2016 which, by a happy chance, was the composer’s 89th birthday. They gave a repeat performance on Palm Sunday 2017. Frustratingly, I couldn’t get to either performance so I’m thrilled that a recording has been made so soon.

Christopher Morley points up some parallels with the Bach Passions in his notes. Like Bach, Joubert uses a tenor to relate the narrative and a baritone sings the words of Christ. The choir functions as the crowd. No doubt reflecting the fact that the setting was designed for liturgical use, Joubert involves the congregation (or audience). Just as Bach’s Leipzig congregations would have joined in the singing of the chorales so Joubert ends each of his Passion’s five sections with a well-known Passiontide hymn in which all can take part. There are two accompanying instruments. The organ accompanies Jesus, the chorus and the five hymns. As for the Narrator, he is partnered by a solo cello – the part is virtuosic. Christopher Morley points out the role of a cello in the continuo supporting the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions and also that it is an instrument which Joubert likes very much, as witness his Cello Concerto (review).

The work is divided into five sections though these play without a break: ‘At the House of Simon the Leper’; ‘The Upper Room’; ‘Gethsemane’; ‘The Praetorium’; ‘Golgotha’. I think I’m right in saying that St Mark’s is the shortest of the Pasion Gospels and Joubert, who draws his text from Chapters 14 and 15 in the King James Bible version, tautens the narrative still further by omitting a number of verses. Thus, we have a very concise telling of the Passion story and apart from the hymns at the end of each section there’s no pause in the narrative thread: this Pasion contains no reflective arias.

As far as singing roles go the principal responsibility falls on the tenor. Peter Auty sings very well indeed. His voice is well suited to Joubert’s vocal lines and his diction is crystal clear. He tells the story compellingly. I said that he has the principal singing responsibility. I chose my words very deliberately there because the cello is just as important in the argument. The cello follows the tenor like a shadow throughout the score. In the first section, ‘At the House of Simon the Leper’, in which we hear the story of the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with costly ointment, the cello part is very expressive. As the work unfolds, however, though the cello part loses none of its expressiveness its material becomes more busy and urgent. In this way the instrument has a key role in heightening the dramatic tension and appearing to increase the pace of the music while allowing much of the tenor part to remain quite measured. The two performers, tenor and cellist, really have to work as a team throughout. The cello part sounds to be very testing but Richard May doesn’t appear to be taxed at all and delivers it superbly.

I don’t believe I’ve heard Benjamin Bevan before but I liked what I heard here. He has a firm, well-focussed voice and, like Peter Auty, he sings with great intelligence. Bevan invests his role with just the right degree of dignity. It’s an important role: because Joubert has trimmed down the Gospel text Jesus features proportionately much more than in, say, the Bach Passions. There are three other small solo roles – Judas, Peter and Pilate. These are all baritone parts and they’re sung by members of the choir. All three do well.

The choral contributions are excellent. The Wells singers are incisive when they voice the words of the crowd and the hymns are all very well done. The organ part is highly influential at times and David Bednall is back at the Wells organ with which he’s very familiar from his time there as Assistant Organist. He makes a telling contribution. Matthew Owens seems to me to pace the work expertly; I say “seems” only because the music is new to me, but I was convinced at all times and felt drawn into the story from start to finish. That’s due to the skill of the performers, of course, but it’s also due to the fact that the music has been composed by a man with a fine instinct for dramatic pacing as anyone who has heard Joubert’s opera Jane Eyre will know.

This is a dramatically involving and musically distinguished setting of the Passion and though I’m delighted to have this splendid recording I’m now even more sorry that I’ve missed two opportunities to experience it live. As with the other works on this disc I hope it will be taken up by other cathedrals. Though it will certainly be necessary to bring in highly proficient tenor, baritone and cello soloists, my impression is that the choral parts have been skilfully written so that they are challenging and interesting yet well within the compass of a good cathedral choir.

Resonus Classics have presented this release very well indeed. The booklet is excellent and the recording, engineered by Adam Binks, is first rate. This is a notable addition to the Joubert discography and a very fine 90th birthday tribute to him from Wells Cathedral.

John Quinn

 

 




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