Joseph Phibbs

Cheltenham Music Festival 2018: Quartet Premières; Berkeley Ensemble; Juliana

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Last Wednesday at Cheltenham Music Festival saw the world premières of no fewer than four new string quartets, courtesy of the Ligeti Quartet. Interestingly, all of them were cast as single-movement structures, though in the case of his String Quartet No. 2Michael Zev Gordon presented something akin to a swatch book, the work comprising an episodic collection of diverse patterns and hues. Mildly engaging, not really containing anything unfamiliar or unconventional, these episodes seemed like short exercises in library music, like the underscore cues for a slightly quirky British drama (think The Camomile Lawn). Somewhat lacking in substance and a bit directionless and monotonous in its later stages – some of the ideas were protracted longer than they warranted – it nonetheless had its moments. Similarly incidental was Ayanna Witter-Johnson‘s Mento Mood, a pretty, cheerful piece invoking Jamaican mento music. In many respects it sounded more like an arrangement than an original composition per se, though there were some nice passages where the material extended beyond the instruments, requiring the quartet to sing and vocalise.

Much more involving than these was Sarah RimkusLe Dian, a piece taking inspiration from Gaelic-language musical traditions. Rimkus sets up a diatonic world, powered primarily by cycling rising minor thirds, from which the instruments then broke away, led by the cello. This established a pattern of harmonic side-steps resulting in nice collisions and ambiguity along the way yet never interrupting the constant flow of the material. A later episode, where the rising motif was explored at length, was truly hypnotic. The most outstanding of these four new quartets was Bethan Morgan-WilliamsGhost Tongues. In keeping with the referential aspect that permeated all the pieces, Morgan-Williams’ music appeared to be derived from folk music, though in the most marvellously oblique and obscure way. It would be simplistic – no, it would just be plain wrong – to say that the piece was ‘folk-like’, yet at all times there was something about the material that, in ways difficult to articulate or even understand, made an oblique but undeniable connection back to a folk origin. This fluid, uncanny sense of familiarity was sometimes expressed in exploded form, the music pulled apart into small fragments, before reforming or shifting into a kind of prismatic lyricism, conveying melodies and harmonies as if refracted through the instruments. This back-and-forth between poles of extended lines and atomised pizzicatos were mirrored by the work’s expressive scope, Morgan-Williams not afraid to let the music become pensive, even allowing it to fall silent a couple of times. Though episodic, it all felt part of the same underlying argument, concluded in a lovely ‘dirty’ major seventh chord, as though a cadence had been forced onto the end. A really brilliant piece that i can’t wait to hear again. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: 21st Century String Quartet, The Hallé

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Here’s a suggestion: if a composer can’t summarise their programme note in fewer than a couple of hundred words, that’s a problem. Is that terribly controversial? Judging by what we were given at the Cheltenham Music Festival last Saturday, it is. This is not a local problem, though, it’s something that manifests itself all too often, composers seeking to convey at length not merely the inspiration for their music but a blow-by-blow account of what happens in it. It’s interesting that they deem this necessary. Does it suggest a lack of faith either in the audience or, more worryingly, in the music? It would be strange for a writer to introduce their novel with a breakdown of the structure and key plot-points; likewise with a programme note full of aural spoilers, it’s impossible to be drawn in and surprised by the music, as we already know what’s coming. Increasingly, programme notes seem akin to the abstracts that preface academic papers, and that’s not necessarily the ideal model for the concert hall. There are two caveats to this: first, it’s not just contemporary music that’s treated to such ‘programme essays’, and second, of course, one’s not obliged to read them at all. Of the first caveat, this is partly to do with the understandable desire for a degree of historical contextualisation, but regarding the second, i’ll come back to this shortly. Read more

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

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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, focusing 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. Read more

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