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Not for the last time, slight echoes of Britten (St Nicolas, The Turn of the Screw, A Midsummer Night's Dream) or of Tippett (The Midsummer Marriage) recalled that Joubert is also an opera composer of note, for whom the likes of Conrad and Tolstoy hold no fears. In the Drought, inspired by his native South Africa, remains one of his most forceful operatic undertakings, just as his setting of Whitman, Yeats and Roy Campbell, in Gong-tormenting Sea, remains one of his most dazzling, compelling choral pieces. There are real rewards there to be garnered by choral societies with imagination.
Equally powerful in Wings of Faith is the scene with Doubting Thomas (tenor Nicholas Mulroy), in which a mocking orchestral commentary of tongued flutes, snarling clarinets and fluttered trumpet ('My truth is now. Faith is a shifting sand ...') gives way to the wavering Thomas's chastened confession. His moving acclamation 'My Lord and my God' is beautifully intoned over Christ's command to his disciple to reach forth his hand and touch his wounds, while the Youth Chorus sings a foretaste of the tune 'Give us the Wings of Faith'. Joubert produces of these layers a chorus of real Elgarian spaciousness: indeed 'Now sanctified, transfigured and made new', and the ensuing sustained cadence, could almost be by Elgar.
Joubert's vocal writing, memorable throughout, is especially effective in the questing, yearning ATB solo trio ('We seek, we cannot find. Blind reasoning / reduces life to what is bought and sold.') which prefaces the Mount Olivet scene and Christ's Ascension: music that seems to be constantly questing and yearning; and also in the very last section (or Epilogue), in which soloists and Youth Chorus sing a version of 'Give us the wings of faith' whose rapturous launch curiously recalls the melody of the Angel from Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius. It make a stark contrast to the dramatic flickerings of woodwind, drums and percussion (calling to mind Joubert's searing cantata South of the Line, an exciting and sharply satiric piece also recently revived to good effect by Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra), and writing of Brittenesque acerbity for the descent of the Holy Spirit. The use of appended or inserted hymns, 'tagged on' almost as an afterthought, can all too easily render oratorios composed today casuistic, sentimental or lopsided; not so here: Joubert's skilful weaving into the fabric of 'Come Holy Ghost' seemed wholly relevant and integral.
The aria of St Stephen was the one, perhaps the only, point where the balance felt awkward: yet the pining orchestral writing, with prominent whining oboe, seemed highly effective, and Stephen's death was touchingly done (again, Nicholas Mulroy), although the tension evaporated with a limp succeeding organ link. The chorus that follows, with a Bachian underlay and forceful canonic writing, and Saul soaring over the chorus, is one of the most powerful passages in the whole oratorio: indeed 'How can we quell out fears?' seemed like an echo from the pleading first part of Tippett's oratorio A Child of Our Time.
Copyright © 5 May 2007
Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK