PCM3: New Phibbs

Proms Chamber Music at Lunchtime

Concerto for harpsichord and five players
Sextet for piano and wind
La Noche Arrolladora [BBC commission: world premiere] *
Tango Seis

Ian Brown (piano & harpsichord)

English Chamber Orchestra Ensemble
Benjamin Wallfisch *

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 5 August, 2002
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A packed house for this lunchtime concert in which the Spanish element of this season was much to the fore, even in a newly commissioned piece from this year’s youngest Proms composer.

The opening work, Falla’s Harpsichord Concerto, sadly set the tone for much of the concert – very fast tempi (the concerto’s opening movement is marked ’Allegro’, but the speed set here was dangerously fast especially without a conductor), not a huge amount of subtlety and more emphasis on louds than softs, which in the acoustic of the Lecture Theatre made for an unrelenting hour of music-making. The elaborate arabesques of the slowmovement were ill-defined and the ’Finale’ raced away taking all manner of musicality with it. I have never found Falla’s concerto a particularly ingratiating piece and my view certainly didn’t change after this performance.

Poulenc’s Sextet is much more to my liking – witty and ironic one minute, graceful and melancholic the next. Again the performance remained on one level, and the same might be said of Piazzolla’s Sixth Tango – this precarious high-wire act of sentimentality, charm and humour needs more care and precision lavished on it than it got here.

It was an intriguing idea to commission Joseph Phibbs to write a new work for the same combination as the Falla – harpsichord (here not taking a solo role), flute, oboe, clarinet, violin and cello. The Winding Night takes its inspiration from the poetry of Pablo Neruda and inhabits a nocturnal world of both calm reflection and dreams and, occasionally it seems, nightmares. Bartók’s night-music movements certainly came to mind, also perhaps the harmonic world of Dutilleux and perhaps Lutoslawski, rather than Phibbs’s teachers Birtwistle, Knussen and Colin Matthews. Phibbs is a young composer intent on building a soundworld of his own – he has an vivid imagination, a firm grasp of harmony and structure and certainly made use of this unusual ensemble in a most effective way. Under Benjamin Wallfisch the ensemble seemed much more able to vary its approach and take notice of what happens beneath the notes. A most auspicious Proms debut from a promising composer.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Sunday, 11 August, at 1 o’clock

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