11 June 2013

CD REVIEW: Joseph Phibbs—THE CANTICLE OF THE ROSE and Other Works (H.-J. Howells, M. Chance, B. Alden, Navarra String Quartet; NMC D191)


JOSEPH PHIBBS (b. 1974): The Canticle of the Rose (H.-J. Howells, soprano; Navarra String Quartet); Flea (A. Firsova, piano; J. Shaw, flute; M. Ploemacher, violin; B. O’Kane, ‘cello); Two Songs from ‘Shades of Night’ (B. Alden, tenor; A. Plant, piano); From Shore to Shore (M. Chance, countertenor; J. Boyd, guitar); Agea (Navarra String Quartet); The Moon’s Funeral (M. Chance, countertenor; A. Plant, piano) [Recorded at the Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Surrey, UK, on 7 – 8 January 2013 and 9 February 2013 (Two Songs from ‘Shades of Night,’ From Shore to Shore, and The Moon’s Funeral); NMC D191; 1 CD, 73:46]

Music is one of life’s most sublime voyages of discovery, and the least curious traveler cannot avoid an awareness of the fact that the road is always under construction, new destinations continually being built upon the creative geniuses of emerging composers.  If advances in musical cartography do not always keep pace with the development of new routes into the unknown, it is exhilarating to unexpectedly come upon a vista so stunningly unspoiled that one feels that no other eyes have yet beheld it.  Hearing the music of young British composer Joseph Phibbs is like seeing for the first time in one’s life the sun rising over the sea: untold depths, churning with all the perils of eternity, are suddenly illuminated and changed in an instant from the black scowl of past to the shining smile of limitless hope.  Educated at the Purcell School, King’s College London, and Cornell University, Mr. Phibbs has amassed an array of credentials unusual for a composer who is not yet forty: having studied with, among others, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, he is a director of the Britten Estate Ltd and has enjoyed the distinction of being an Artist in Residence at Aldeburgh, the ‘Britten Bayreuth.’  Britons have rightly recognized such an important native artist, but Mr. Phibbs’s artistry transcends any contexts of nationality: like the music of Sir Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, or Benjamin Britten, there is an identifiably British sensibility in Mr. Phibbs’s music, but the language of his work is universal.  This groundbreaking recording from NMC—the most recent entry in the ‘Debut Discs’ series—is the first disc devoted solely to Mr. Phibbs’s music, and it is from the first note to the last a true revelation.

Mr. Phibbs is very open about the tremendous importance of the music of Benjamin Britten to both his development as a composer and his career as a practicing artist.  There is in his music an aura of Britten, but Mr. Phibbs’s compositional voice is entirely his own.  As surely as there are echoes of Britten at his most progressive, there are also spirits of composers from the ‘ancient’ past—Monteverdi, Purcell, and Bach, for example—lurking in Mr. Phibbs’s scores, particularly in Flex, the first piece on this disc.  Composed for flute, piano, violin, and ‘cello, Flex nods to the Sonatas for flute and basso continuo popular during the High Baroque, but the originality of Mr. Phibbs’s writing for this complement of instruments is striking.  The four instruments are only occasionally employed in full quartet, the bulk of the piece exploring the unique timbres possible when the instruments are variously combined.  The soul of the piece being a metaphysical examination of human movement, Flex draws upon dance rhythms with the charm and intensity of the great Suites of the French Baroque.  Nothing less than absolute virtuosity is demanded of the musicians, and those engaged in this performance—flautist Joanna Shaw, pianist Alissa Firsova, violinist Marije Ploemacher, and ‘cellist Brian O’Kane—never disappoint.  Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Mr. Phibbs’s music is that, despite its dissonance and the adventurousness of its harmonies, even the harshest explosions of sound never sever the thread of musicality.  Mr. Phibbs is not so dedicated to the pursuit of academic notions of contemporary composition that he avoids unabashed beauty: there are passages in Flex of lyrical beauty that rival the most gorgeous moments in masterworks of conventional tonality.  The inventiveness with which Mr. Phibbs manipulates the instrumental textures is arresting, and the tautness of his rhythmic construction is ably conveyed by the virile playing of the instrumentalists.

It is very welcome to have Mr. Phibbs’s settings of Two Songs from Shades of Night sung in this recording by the artist by whom they were commissioned and first performed, young tenor Ben Alden.  The characters of these songs are very different, ‘Sleep, my body, sleep, my ghost’ a setting of a passage from Louis MacNiece’s 1939 Autumn Journal and ‘Hush-a-ba, birdie’ a traditional Scottish lullaby.  Song-writing is at the heart of Mr. Phibbs’s creative prowess, and his sagacity in selecting texts is unquestionable.  The intelligence with which he marries graceful, often hauntingly beautiful vocal lines with sinewy accompaniments is rivaled by few if any other composers active today.  ‘Sleep, my body, sleep, my ghost’ is a commentary on the growing menace of the 20th Century, the uneasy happiness of the Entre-Guerres years giving way to mounting anxiety in the months before Europe would again be ravaged by war.  Uncertainty and fear course through the accompaniment, played with great skill and poetic nuance by pianist Andrew Plant.  In both songs, Mr. Alden sings with poise and terrific diction, his voicing of Mr. Phibbs’s phrases confident and perceptive.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s operatic setting of John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea enshrined in music the essence of the centrality of the sea to British and Irish cultures; a theme to which Benjamin Britten also turned on many occasions, none more monumental than Peter Grimes.  There is perhaps something enigmatically important in the collective psychologically of islanders—among whom, in consideration of Mr. Phibbs’s musical milieu, both Britons and Manhattanites are included—that rises from proximity to the sea, and this is explored insightfully in From Shore to Shore, a song cycle composed to texts by American poet Sara Teasdale and young British writer Nicholas Heiney, both of whose lives were ended by suicide.  Composed for countertenor Michael Chance and guitarist James Boyd, who perform them on this recording, the songs offer musical settings of textual adroitness that call to mind the uncommon fidelity to text of the Lieder of Hugo Wolf.  Teasdale’s poetry evokes the artistic atmosphere of a work like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the heroine of which dies by giving herself to the sea, and Mr. Phibbs’s music suggests the inevitability of the return of man to the primordial sea from which he emerged.  It is perhaps impossible to ignore imposing upon the poetry of Nicholas Heiney a dolorous sense of regret for the life of so gifted a young man to have ended at the age of twenty-three.  It is to Mr. Phibbs’s credit that his settings of Heiney’s texts are free from saccharine sentimentality, their emotional cores derived solely from the texts themselves.  Mr. Chance, one of the best countertenors in the world and one of the few for whom song repertory is utterly natural territory, sings with undiminished eloquence and beauty of tone.  The ethereal quality of his voice is ideal for Mr. Phibbs’s music, both in From Shore to Shore—in which he is accompanied with perfect alertness by Mr. Boyd—and in The Moon’s Funeral, a setting of lines by Hilaire Belloc.  Mr. Chance’s effervescent portrait of Nature perverted and discarded is ably accompanied in The Moon’s Funeral by Mr. Plant’s pianism.

Playing with the letters in the name of George Vass, in celebration of whose fiftieth birthday it was commissioned, Agea is a challenging piece for string quartet, its melodic writing spiky but deeply effective.  With its shimmering opening leading to an expressive violin solo that dissolves into tremulous recapitulation of the first theme before fading into silence recalls the traditional recitative – aria – cabaletta structure of bel canto opera.  The cleverness of Mr. Phibbs’s ideas is made apparent by the rhapsodic playing of the Navarra String Quartet.

The centerpiece of this disc is The Canticle of the Rose, an extended song cycle for soprano and string quartet set to verses by Dame Edith Sitwell.  With this challenging, visionary work, Mr. Phibbs joins the ranks of the greatest composers of songs.  Premièred by Lisa Milne in 2005, The Canticle of the Rose is a demanding cycle for the singer, the tessitura taking the soprano soloist to the top of her range.  The music for the instrumentalists is no less daunting, the richness of a full orchestra being distilled into unapologetically complex contrapuntal writing for the string quartet.  The way in which the soprano’s voice emerges from the instrumental texture in ‘We are the darkness in the heat of the day’ is magical, the sudden juxtaposition of vocal and instrumental sounds as jarring as the image of the fully-formed Venus emerging from the sea in Botticelli’s la Nascita di Venere.  Mr. Phibbs’s meticulous replication of the particular cadences of rhythm in ‘Through gilded trellises’ is wonderful, his mastery of the nuances of the text disclosing a literary sensitivity rare in composers of any era.  Throughout The Canticle of the Rose, Mr. Phibbs’s music brims with the mysteries of Nature and humanity, the almost Existential relationships between the two states inherent in Sitwell’s poetry audible in every bar of Mr. Phibbs’s score.  The music for string quartet in The Canticle of the Rose is as compelling as any ever composed for such an ensemble, and the players of the Navarra String Quartet respond with playing of towering accomplishment: nothing in the powerhouse String Quartets of Beethoven would challenge or reward the players more, and this is a performance that reveals both the extroverted weight and the intimacy possible with chamber ensembles.  Soprano Helen-Jane Howells, an intrepid young singer whose engagements during Summer 2013 include performances of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem and music by Purcell and Vivaldi, sings with sweetness and steel in The Canticle of the Rose, taking the ascents above the staff in stride and trusting her technique to enable her to successfully negotiate the labyrinthine twists of Mr. Phibbs’s formidable musical architecture.  The purity of Ms. Howells’s tone introduces a suggestion of playful innocence into the dark world of Sitwell’s texts, and the array of emotions that she delivers reveals the subtleties of Mr. Phibbs’s music.  The Canticle of the Rose is music of the consistently high quality that demands the best of the artists who perform it: the performance on this recording is nothing short of definitive.

It is intriguing to contemplate what choices the great composers of the past might have made had they been fortunate enough to select the works with which to make their recorded débuts and the artists by whom those works would be performed.  The staff and benefactors of NMC Recordings have rendered an invaluable service to music lovers—and especially to those who believe that the composition of exquisite, meaningful, beautiful music died with the likes of Britten, Tippett, and Walton—with the release of this recording of The Canticle of the Rose and other works by Joseph Phibbs.  Few works of new music enjoy recordings of this quality, but few composers offer new music as vibrantly original and emotionally sincere as that by Joseph Phibbs.  With an already-expansive body of work to this composer’s credit and the blessing of youth still his to enjoy, there are certain to be unimagined wonders along the musical journey that begins with this prestigious disc.

To learn more about Joseph Phibbs’s work, please visit his website and view his profile on the NMC Recordings website.  In conjunction with the release of this disc, NMC Recordings conducted an interview with Mr. Phibbs, in which he discusses the genesis of The Canticle of the Rose.  Click here to watch this enlightening interview.  Please also consider supporting the efforts of NMC to encourage the work of contemporary composers by responding to the NMC Opera Appeal.