Joubert’s Pop-Influenced Choral Songs

Joubert cover

JOUBERT: Ariettes Oubliées. Aquarelles. Trois Chansons / Julien Joubert, pno; Leonie Souchu-Bargeron, bsn; Anne-Laurie Py, cel; Christophe Andrivet, bs; Ensemble Romances sans Paroles; Marie-Noëlle Maerten, cond / Alpha Classics 323

Julien Joubert, born in 1973, thinks very highly of his own abilities. In the booklet for this CD, he has contributed the following description of himself (with interspersed comments by me):

Julien Joubert is not the kind of composer people imagine them to be. [He has tw heads? He’s a cyborg?] He is impossible to classify, truly impossible. [Try me.I can classify anybody if I put my mind to it.] Frommuisicals to opera to symphonic music, chamber music, ballet, theatre or film music, Julien Joubert continues to explore all forms of composition. [So did Stravinsky, Milhaud, Britten and Copland.] If we had to define each of his musical activities – compositions, lectures, teaching, concerts – in three words, we would say, “culture,” “audacity” and “emotion.”

But I have a problem with composers who delve a bit too much into film music, which is a highly specialized craft that demands mass appeal as well as matching the musical sounds to the situations and images onscreen in that it often degrades a composer’s musical quality.

Joubert, according to Wikipedia, “was born into a family of musicians: his father, Claude-Henry Joubert, is a violist and composer; his mother, Françoise Joubert, is a pianist. Each of them is active in the field of musical pedagogy. Cellist, pianist and singer, Julien Joubert turned to composition at an early age. His first musical, Dans un café des bords de Loire, was created in 1993 at the Salle de l’Institut in Orléans. [So he was eight years older than Mozart or Mendelssohn when they started composing.] His output includes instrumental and vocal music for choirs, musicals, and some sixty children’s operas – some created and recorded by the Maîtrise de Radio France.

“Professor at the Conservatoire à rayonnement départemental d’Orléans, Julien Joubert is also the musical director of the association La Musique de Léonie, which offers choir and orchestra courses for young people of all levels, concerts, assistance in the production of musical shows, and custom orchestrations.”

So there you have an introduction to Joubert the composer. This album of his choral works is based on the poetry of Paul Verlaine, thus like Debussy and every other French composer of the early 20th century he has his own settings of those well-loved titles Green and Spleen, though the album opens with his nine Ariettes Oubliées.

The opening song of the Ariettes, “C’est l’extase langoureuse,” opens with some nice harmonies harking back to the Belle Époque; indeed, I got the impression that Joubert was deliberately channeling this style because of the inherent simplicity and directness of Verlaine’s poetry. The vocal group used here, Ensemble Romances sans Paroles, consists of only nine voices which are handled expertly by their conductor, Marie-Noëlle Maerten. The microphone placement is very close, which rather magnifies the nonet’s sound, but I found this much more preferable than the opposite trend nowadays to recede the sound and add a ton of echo or reverb. Joubert himself plays piano on this recording, making his first appearance in the third song, “”Il pleure dans mon cœur,” and it is in this song that one hears the first real swell of volume near the end of the song.

Joubert uses relatively simple song forms, and in the piano intro to “Il faut, voyez-vous, nous pardonnes les choses,” I heard some definite echoes of Debussy, but it was also in this song that I heard a simplification of the harmony that leaned somewhat towards film music (note the chord at the 1:15 mark). There’s also an undertone of Broadway music in this song that I found a bit disconcerting, but by and large its structure leans more towards classical. “Le piano que baise une main frèle” is unusual in that the mezzos take the melody while the sopranos sing moving chords behind them. By and large, I would describe all nine pieces as essentially retro creations harking back to the music of Debussy, Ravel and Hahn with touches of Broadway and film music in it. It’s certainly attractive to the ear, but to my mind just a bit more clever than truly creative. There are moments that sounded to me like reductions of the Norman Luboff Choir or Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, French style. And there are several little quotes from or allusions to older pieces, not enough to suggest plagiarism but clearly modeled on those pieces. The vocal writing is skillful but for the most part not terribly original.

Several of these songs, however, could be used to make up an interesting program for high school glee clubs (if such things even exist any more), a high grade form of “simple” music that would clearly impress the parents who come to hear their kids sing. It’s certainly several grades above the junk I had to sing in glee club, which included excerpts from Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Joubert’s setting of Green is a jaunty waltz accompanied by bassoon, cello and piano, while Spleen is a slow sort of dirge in E minor with dips into neighboring major keys and a gradually increasing tempo—one of the most clever pieces, harmonically, on the album. The first version of Streets is a jaunty 6/8 with some nice rhythmic figures for the underlying singers. This piece is a bit beyond the abilities of the average high school glee club, though a really good one could possibly manage it. (There are some “solos” in these pieces by one of the “baritones,” but like most of the other singers, he doesn’t really have a classical voice—more of a Broadway or pop singing style.) The second setting of Streets is less complex polyphonically but longer and with more structure, yet it sounds more like a Broadway piece than the previous version.

In brief, if you’re the kind of listener who enjoys hearing classical music that sounds just a bit classical but leans heavily towards Broadway, pop and glee club music, this is the disc for you. Joubert impresses me as a very well-grounded composer who purposely aims for a lower common denominator in his audience. If you prefer something a bit more artistic or complex, it’s not. Beautifully produced and recorded, however.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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