John Joubert: Piano Concerto & Symphony No. 3

It was after the premiere of Joubert's First Symphony given by the Hull Philharmonic under Vilem Tausky in Hull City Hall on 12 April 1956 that Russian-born pianist Iso Elinson invited the composer to write him a Piano Concerto. Completed in the summer of 1958, the resulting score is dedicated to Elinson, who gave the first performance of the work with the Hallé Orchestra under George Weldon on 11 January 1959 in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. In keeping with Joubert’s instinctively symphonic approach to large-scale forms, the concerto is more of a sinfonia concertante than a bravura vehicle for pianistic display.

The idea for a musico-dramatic work based on Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre originated in the early 1980s, when the composer took early retirement from the University of Birmingham. This was a labour of love which he embarked upon unprompted and without the security of a commission.

Dedicated to the opera’s librettist Kenneth Birkin and his wife Inge, Symphony No.3 on themes from the opera “Jane Eyre”, Op.178 (2014-17), reworks the five orchestral interludes as five symphonic movements. Originally written for chamber orchestral forces, the material has been re-scored by the composer for a full symphony orchestra.

In stock
Catalogue Number

Born in Cape Town in 1927, John Joubert studied with Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush. He remained in the UK as a lecturer, becoming a full-time composer from 1986.

Joubert’s works are powerful statements, none more than the Third Symphony. He has written eight operas, and the Third Symphony (2014-17) is based on themes from Jane Eyre, reworking the opera’s five orchestral interludes as symphonic movements. Although none of the movements is based on traditional symphonic forms, there is a powerful cogency to Joubert’s writing that underlines its dark-hued intensity. Boughton shapes the surging phrases impeccably; climaxes have a natural inevitability.

Dedicated to and premiered by Eso Elinson, Joubert’s 1958 Piano Concerto unfolds on a large scale, muscular in its outer movements. The orchestra’s role is prominent, with Martin Jones a sure soloist. Rewarding listening.  Colin Clarke, Agora Classica

"Last year my Recording of the Year was the release of the superb live performance of John Joubert’s most recent opera, Jane Eyre, issued on CD to mark his 90th birthday in March 2017. I mentioned in my original review of the recording that Joubert had excised quite a lot of orchestral material from the opera’s original score but that he had recycled the music into his new Third Symphony. I’m bound to say that at that time I was unsure when we might get a chance to hear that music but now, thanks to the BBC and Lyrita, we have it here. I’m not sure if the symphony has yet received a public performance. Rather unusually, both of the recordings on this disc were broadcast by the BBC during the summer, several weeks before I received the disc for review, though I missed the broadcast of the concerto.

In his excellent notes, Paul Conway tells us that Joubert tightened up the score of Jane Eyre in preparation for the projected concert performance (which eventually took place and which is now preserved on the SOMM recording.) Two whole scenes were excised as well as three orchestral interludes. In all, the revisions took some 45 minutes out of the score; I wonder, in passing, whether the composer regards these as permanent excisions or whether the cuts might be restored were a staged performance to materialise. Mr Conway out that the opera material is not transcribed verbatim but, rather, that the principal ideas provide the material from which each movement is developed. It might be objected that the material is not developed in a “strict” symphonic sense but I can assure listeners that each movement demonstrates very satisfying development of the material. In the opera Joubert used a chamber sized orchestra consisting of strings, single wind and brass, timpani, two percussionists, piano and, for Jane’s wedding scene, an organ. The symphony, however, uses a much fuller orchestra, including triple woodwind (with doubling), a full brass complement, timpani, three percussionists, harp and strings. I didn’t feel any want of colour or orchestral invention when listening to the opera but, my goodness, the fuller scoring in the symphony is terrific, not least the involvement of the harp and the imaginative use of percussion.

There are five movements. The first, ‘Lowood School’ begins with mysterious writing for strings and crotales. Paul Conway rightly identifies an ambiguous tone of voice in this movement. From around 3:30 the music builds to a climax that is both impassioned and extended, after which (from about 5:30) the movement subsides to a quiet conclusion. There follows ‘Thornfield House’ in which, to quote Paul Conway, ‘Joubert fashions a colourful tapestry of interweaving motifs from the second and third scenes of Act I’. The music becomes very powerful and then (from 3:21) we hear a wonderfully orchestrated lighter passage in which the harp has a significant atmospheric role and there are important solos for clarinet, oboe and flute.

The third movement, ‘Thornfield Church’ begins restlessly. Eventually we hear the music for Jane’s wedding procession. However, the troubled nature of much of the music underlines the fact that the day of Jane’s wedding to Rochester is not gong to have a happy outcome. Fleeing from the scene of her abandoned wedding, Jane takes refuge with the Rivers family. In the opera Rivers, the zealous parson (marvellously portrayed on the recording by Mark Milhofer), tries to persuade Jane to accompany him, as his wife, to overseas missionary work. In this orchestral movement, entitled ‘Whitecross Rectory’, I’m sure we’re hearing Jane’s inner turmoil as she is first repelled by the prospect of life with Rivers and then comes to the realisation that her destiny lies with Rochester. A lot of the music in this movement is urgent and turbulent but my ear was also caught by the appealing clarinet solo heard right at the close.

The finale, ‘Thornfield Park’, gets off to a bustling start. Then, in Mr Conway’s words. ‘much of the previously heard thematic material is brought together with the sleight of hand of a master of long-term symphonic planning’. The only thing I’d add is that as Joubert revisits his material he does so now in a very positive vein. The last few minutes of the movement are expansive as Jane and Rochester – and the Third Symphony – arrive at a happy ending with bells pealing.

I really enjoyed this symphony. The thematic material is memorable and the scoring brings the music to life in a most colourful way If music had to be cut from Jane Eyre for very good reasons then I’m very glad that it has found a new home in this symphony. The work is an essential adjunct to the opera. William Boughton and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales play the score with great commitment and skill.

The Piano Concerto is a much earlier work. Its composition came about as a result of the first performance of Joubert’s First Symphony by the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra in 1956. Also on the programme of that concert was the Grieg Piano Concerto and the soloist, Iso Elison (1907-1964), paid Joubert the compliment of staying on to hear the symphony. Impressed by what he heard, he invited Joubert to write a concerto for him and he gave the work’s premiere in 1959. The concerto is cast in the traditional three movements and is scored for a smaller orchestra than the Third Symphony. So far as I’m aware, this is the first recording of the work.

The opening movement is marked Allegro. There’s a very strong rhythmic impetus to the first theme; the music is serious and energetic. At 1:16 the flute introduces a second theme; this has a more lyrical aspect but still I hear tension in the music. What follows features a good deal of vigorous, toccata-like writing for both piano and orchestra. Along the way I admired many imaginative touches in the orchestration, such as a kind of “swirling” effect just after 3:00, which recurs later on. Joubert’s development of his ideas is virile and robust; Martin Jones and the orchestra project the music strongly. The very end of the movement comes as something of a surprise with an almost casual little pay-off. Paul Conway draws an apt parallel with the conclusion of the first movement of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.

The first movement has given the percussive aspect of the piano a thorough work-out and at first, as the soloist begins the Lento, it seems that the slow movement will emphasise the cantabile capabilities of the instrument. That impression is reinforced at 0:55 when the woodwind intone a second theme which is almost chorale-like. However, Joubert develops these themes in a very purposeful, almost dark fashion; as in the first movement, the music is strongly rhythmical. The movement builds to a very intense climax around 3:30 during which the horns are satisfyingly prominent. However, after this (from about 4:40) things calm down and the music becomes lyrical, eventually achieving a calm end.

The finale opens with a Lento passage. This is a slow cadenza-like passage for the soloist, interpolated by a series of strange wind chords. At 1:17 the main body of the movement, an Allegro vivace, begins. The music dances along in extrovert fashion. The soloist is required to be nimble fingered and for both the piano and the orchestra there’s a good deal of insistently rhythmic writing. Yet again, there’s much to admire in Joubert’s deft and expert handling of the orchestra. After a powerful climax, at 8:53 the opening wind chords usher in a proper and substantial cadenza, which runs through to 12;53. This is a cadenza in the grand manner and Martin Jones commands our attention. After the cadenza there’s a brief reprise of the Allegro vivace which drives this impressive concerto to an exciting, percussive ending.

This is a fine concerto and Martin Jones, ably supported by William Boughton and the BBCNOW, makes a very strong case for it.

This CD is an important addition to the Joubert discography. The performances are excellent in every way and have been recorded vividly. Paul Conway’s extensive notes provide an ideal and highly knowledgeable introduction to the music." - John Quinn

South African-born, British composer John Joubert, who celebrated his 91st birthday on March 20 of this year, is a fairly conservative writer whose music is not much known outside the British Isles. The Piano Concerto, which dates from 1958, is apparently typical of his oeuvre: sprightly rhythms and an interesting use of chromatics within his essentially tonal style. He uses a very economical four-note theme as the launching pad for the first movement, and although I am not ready to put him in the same category with York Bowen, it is very fine music indeed. Joubert is quoted in the booklet as saying, “Communication is important to me. I want to be understood, enjoyed and used. I do not want to live in the enclosed and artificial world of ‘Contemporary Music,’ but in the repertory of musicians whom I respect, in the schools, in the churches, and in the theatre.” I would think that this brilliantly-played recording would ensure him of that. The second movement I found to be even more original than the first, using almost modal harmonies with a bright wind texture à la Stravinsky, and quite powerful orchestral climaxes that belie its designated tempo of “Lento.”

Another thing I really like about Joubert is that he is very economical in his use of material; none of his music overstays its welcome, and is always fascinating enough to hold the listener’s attention. Nowhere is this more evident than in the last movement of the concerto, which starts with an actual “Lento” theme before moving into the “Allegro vivace.” It’s always a trap for composers to write such movements without sounding as if they are simply recycling material in order to keep the momentum up (think of the last movement of the Schubert Ninth Symphony). Joubert has no such problem, for despite the continual forward momentum his music is always changing and morphing.

The Third Symphony, by contrast, was composed between 2014 and 2017 when Joubert was a young man of 87-90 years old! It is based on “Themes from ‘Jane Eyre,’” but the music is nowhere near as echt-Romantic as the plot of that famous book. Joubert has been quoted as saying that if he had his way he would write opera and “nothing but opera,” and this symphony gave him an opportunity to write “operatically” for orchestra. His themes, again, are lyrical but not maudlin or sappy; his acute sense of harmonic movement precludes such a predictable outcome. The symphony’s five movements are titled “Lowood School – Lento,” “Thornfield House – Lento-Allegro,” “Thornfield Church – Andante-Allegro,” “Whitecross Rectory – Lento-Allegro” and “Thornfield Park – Allegro,” and each is masterfully conceived and executed. Boughton, who is one of my favorite British conductors not widely known here across the pond, gives the music a muscular, dramatic reading that in itself belies its Romantic inspiration. Even such lyrical episodes as the second movement keep the listener on the edge of his or her seat, enjoying the composer’s very personal and fascinating mode of musical progression. None of his harmonic movement is predictable or formulaic; everything is an adventure. This is clearly music that would not be played on most American classical music stations, and thank goodness for that!

In the third movement, Joubert uses dramatic pauses within the opening “Andante,” yet keeps things moving in an interesting way. He then develops the “Allegro” with jumping, asymmetric figures, juxtaposing strings, winds and brass in unusual ways. The only part of the symphony that disappointed me was the very ending of the last movement: to my ears, somewhat predictable and bombastic. Otherwise, it’s a fine piece of music.

I strongly recommend a listen to this CD. It’s well worth your while.  Lynn René Bayley, The Art Music Lounge


© 2010-2020 Wyastone. All Rights Reserved.