JOHN JOUBERT – The First String Quartet

British Early Modern composer John Pierre Herman Joubert [born 1927] wrote three string quartets. String Quartet No. 1 in A-flat major, was composed in 1950 as his Opus 1. It contains three movements.

The work opens with a questioning melodic line, harmonised by all four instruments, in an abstract manner. There is dissonance here but it has a certain warmth, particularly as a dialogue develops within the ensemble. Rhythmic interjections occur for a time, before another questioning passage delivers responses to the first violin’s melodies. A powerful tempo is established, with slightly frantic, atonal violin lines sparring with the ensemble – there is an underlying ferocity contained in this music, which continues to an abrupt termination.

The second movement, marked lento, is a wonderful piece of writing. Meandering in and out of atonality it features harmonised melodic lines to produce my favourite feeling, the abstract soundscape. The violin laments, with minimal accompaniment, which gradually increases in intensity – to me, the music sounds very British and slightly intellectual. Further lamenting melodies are presented, contrasted with aching ensemble passages, before a stasis is invoked. With a delicate feeling, the violins inch their way forward, against the background of a faint pulse. A shrill violin is persistent as a second voice expresses loneliness in support – the cello drones in the background for a time before stepping forward and initiating a further measured, dissonant passage. Nearing the end, it is another lament, occasionally interrupted by a throbbing cello. The end is sombre and very precious.

The final movement begins in a light-hearted manner, with the cello playing a strong melodic line against a background of rhythmic violin phrases. The roles are soon reversed and the violins build intensity with a supportive cello. There is a lot of forward momentum here as the violin jabs at the rhythm, which is momentarily muted. A sense of ascending harmonies allows the violins to investigate various melodic motifs, with the cello rumbling to its own tune. Virtuosic lines suddenly leap to the forefront, I think I detect a quote from Beethoven’s late quartets here. A pause allows the mood to return to a state of peace, with the cello and violin producing an almost pastoral mood of sparse, atonal character. A return to forward movement is intense as the violins and cello again produce virtuosic, contrasting lines before a sharp, dissonant flourish concludes the work.

I must admit that I am drawn to early British modernism, it seems to venture into emotional musical soundscapes that are not necessarily found elsewhere, although there are some parallels with European quartets from the same era. Joubert fits firmly into this mould.

The review CD, Joubert: String Quartets 1, 2 & 3, performed brilliantly by the Brodsky Quartet is available on both Amazon US and UK.

This disc is also on Spotify, and some, but not all movements are on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: A moving work, steeped in the British tradition. Modern but eminently listenable.


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