Mixed but strong & accessible: Joseph Phibbs – The Canticle of the Rose

A few weeks back, NMC Recordings brought out the latest in their ongoing ‘Debut Discs’ series, this time devoted to the music of Joseph Phibbs. It’s an ambitious album, presenting two lengthy song cycles alongside a cluster of additional songs and a pair of instrumental works, focussing on soloists Helen-Jane Howells and Michael Chance, with the Navarra String Quartet.

The opening piece, Flex for violin, cello, flute and piano, arguably serves as a paradigm for much that follows. Inspired by the physicality of movement, Phibbs likens it to a “miniature chamber ballet … reflecting an underlying sequence of dances”. This is explored via a sequence of episodes that swing back and forth between poles of firm insistence—fiery rhythmic poundings forcing the music along—and soft passages of demonstrably lyrical character. There’s a strong sense of continuity between these respective types, but the regularity of their structural oscillations gradually works against the overall sense of motion in the piece as a whole. They seem to cancel each other out, leaving Flex feeling like a rather histrionic kind of equilibrium. The first of the two cycles, The Canticle of the Rose for soprano and string quartet, experiences a similar problem. Its six songs draw on one of England’s most beguiling and bemusing poets, Edith Sitwell, encompassing a wide range of emotional intents. Phibbs embraces their contemplative character, and he’s at his most interesting when conjuring up the strange, semi-static environments that permeate the cycle. Elsewhere, in the more rapid songs, there’s a kind of over-familiarity to the material (plus predictable word-painting) that lessens their interest and at times even lends them a certain generic quality. The back and forth in mood causes the cycle to wrong-foot itself, resetting the atmosphere too readily, but it’s especially uncomfortable at the end, when two bold, harrowing songs (‘Gold Coast Customs’ and ‘The Canticle of the Rose’) have their potency shattered by the cycle’s light, whimsical epilogue.

The other cycle, From Shore to Shore, is more telling, benefiting greatly from an intense intimacy that comes from the delicate combination of countertenor and guitar. Despite feeling a little too long, it nonetheless displays real charm and considerable evocative power, but above all Phibbs establishes a rock-solid unity here that sets it apart from the works already mentioned. Phibbs’ approach to the texts—which vary in length from just a few lines to a huge paragraph—is elastic and spontaneous, not so much attempting to ‘depict’ the content as allow it to guide the shape and direction of the music. ‘Ship’, the second song in the cycle, is a good example of this, shifting substantially in the move from the first to the second stanza, as the words lurch into a more pensive, wistful place. Phibbs’ imagination seems at its most unfettered in these seven songs, a world away from the self-conscious Britten-esque leanings heard in the Two Songs from Shades of Night and the ultimately flat activity of string quartet miniature Agea. Yet the disc ends with something really special in the short song The Moon’s Funeral; the countertenor and piano feel like two facets of a single expressive entity, solemnly searching for a way to commune the extent of its heartbreak.

Overall, this disc is undeniably a mixed bag, but its best works are sufficiently strong that they deserve attention and much wider appreciation. Those who prefer their contemporary music at the more accessible end of the spectrum will certainly find much to enjoy here.

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