Talking Heads: Joseph Phibbs

joseph-phibbs

Interview with Ben Hogwood

This year in the Summer at Snape series, Britten Pears Arts has been presenting premieres of new arrangements of works by Benjamin Britten. The last in the series will be composer Joseph Phibbs’ arrangement of Britten’s landmark orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers for the chamber forces of the Hebrides Ensemble and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn. Described by Britten as ‘my real Op.1’, the piece represents the full flowering of his creative relationship with W.H. Auden, who supplied the texts for the three middle poems, writing his own new verse for the Prologue and Epilogue. It is also the first of Britten’s works to explore the theme of humans’ inhumanity, which ran as a thread throughout his life and music. Arcana was able to talk with Joseph about his arrangement, and about the meaningful relationship he has with the music of its composer.

BH: I understand you have a long-standing relationship with Britten’s music. Can you remember the first time you heard anything by him?

JP: I was around 13, and borrowed some cassettes of the String Quartets from my local library. The opening of No.1 immediately captivated me, the violins and viola sustaining a soft cluster of notes at the very top of their registers, with gentle cello pizzicato gestures beneath. The sound world had a disorientating effect, one that was totally alien as well as extraordinarily beautiful. My impressions were of wide landscapes bathed in a glowing, evening light, and it may indeed have been influenced by the impressions Britten had of America around the time he composed it.

A few months later, I heard the Dirge from the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, which was riveting, and shortly after became obsessed with Peter Grimes, listening to it non-stop, before making a pilgrimage to The Red House when I was about 16.

I was incensed by a documentary that had just been made called J’accuse, which dismissed most of what Britten composed after 1945, and spoke at length to the curator about it, who kindly allowed me look around the Britten-Pears Library (perhaps to calm me down!). I remember picking up a stone from the drive way, in the hope that Britten’s shoe may have graced it 20 years earlier..

It all sounds crazy to me now (it probably was crazy), but my reverence for Britten has never really left me. He strikes me as an extraordinary and mysterious figure, a workaholic who was in some ways compelled to compose because his own irrepressible genius.

When I first heard Our Hunting Fathers it made an incredibly strong impression on me, and I found it emotionally very powerful. How did you respond on first hearing?

Of Britten’s mature works, it was one I knew less well. Having now rediscovered it, I can see how remarkable it is. Britten’s technique was fully formed when he composed it in 1936, at the age of 22, and although it’s his first mature work to include orchestra the scoring is both impeccably judged and extremely imaginative in ways that would have been unusual at the time. He himself regarded it as his first ‘real opus 1’, so clearly felt he had achieved something important. It’s also his first large-scale expression of pacifism. Fascism was on the rise throughout Europe at the time – the Spanish Civil War erupted while the piece was being composed – and Auden’s juxtaposition of ‘German’ and Jew’ (dogs in a hunting pack) at the close of The Dance of Death has a chilling prescience in light of how the world would look ten years later. In some respects it’s an atypical work for Britten, a reason why even some of his detractors have a soft spot for it.

How would you describe Britten’s ability at scoring for orchestra?

As mentioned above, there’s a certain glow to his sound, as well as a clarity and lightness of touch, which I’ve always loved. His music is the opposite of ‘dense’, and he disliked orchestral music that sounded heavy (famously so in the case of Brahms – though also in some Beethoven). He discovered new ways of approaching the orchestra throughout his life; the textures of Peter Grimes, for example, are completely different from those of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Death in Venice. The melodic and harmonic aspects of his music are always perfectly aligned to his orchestration, and can’t really be divorced from it. For this reason, in this arrangement the original orchestral colour has been kept as possible, and elsewhere I’ve tried to imagine what Britten would have done were he scoring for a small ensemble.

What other Britten works do you particularly admire?

I drift in and out of pieces, and am at the moment re-familiarising myself with Rejoice in the Lamb, another early work. Death in Venice is my favourite opera, and Les Illuminations has always been high on my list. A Boy was Born, which predates Our Hunting Fathers, is to my mind one of the most extraordinary works in the repertoire, and the pinnacle of his choral writing from a technical angle. I discovered the cello suites through the superb Tim Hugh recordings around 15 years ago, and they became a big influence on my work. They are perhaps his most private, intimate pieces.

In recent years I’ve enjoyed getting to know his more obscure works better: Prelude and Fugue, for example, and The Journey of the Magi, both wonderful pieces. Occasionally pieces I haven’t listened to for several years suddenly come alive again through an unfamiliar recording, as with Noseda‘s live LSO recording of War Reqiuem, or Iona Brown‘s riveting take on Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.

How did the commission come about?

I was asked last year by Roger Wright at Britten Pears Arts – on Colin Matthew’s recommendation – to make this new arrangement, in part due to COVID restrictions. I discussed the instrumentation with William Conway, Artistic Director of the Hebrides Ensemble, and we decided on a scoring that would be compatible with the Sinfonietta Op.1, in the hope that these two pieces might be programmed together in the future. Boosey and Hawkes, who publish the work, granted permission, and it was then then a matter of gaining an overview of the whole piece, isolating particular sections that might be more challenging than others, and then working from beginning to end.

In Britten’s scoring for Our Hunting Fathers I felt I could detect the influence of in the idea of chamber-like passages in a work set for symphony orchestra. Was this something you were conscious of?

The chamber ensembles that emerge in parts of Mahler were clearly an influence, and his imagination had also been fired by Schoenberg, Berg, and Stravinsky, if not harmonically then in a more transparent, colouristic approach to scoring. It’s an unusual piece for the time in which it was written, when a denser approach to orchestral writing in England would have been more typical. I don’t know a work of Britten’s that is more fastidiously scored; every bar is packed full of instructions, and one has the impression he was setting out the full extent of his orchestral technique for the world to see. It left the audience – including Frank Bridge – fairly baffled after the premiere, and was savaged in most of the press. Though it was performed the following year, under Adrian Boult, it had to wait until 1950 before resurfacing.

Did you refer to other smaller-scale Britten works when you were doing the arrangement? I was thinking of the economical scoring in works like Curlew River or the Nocturne.

The Sinfonietta was my closest reference point, although some of the chamber operas, in particular The Turn of the Screw, were also in my mind. Every one of the 12 instruments were essential to do justice to the piece; without, for example, the strident, brassy quality of the horn, the moments of high drama would have been lost.

It must be quite something having the premiere at Snape, and to have your own work back in the live environment.

To have something of Britten’s performed which I’ve tampered with, in the concert hall he built, feels a bit daunting. I can only hope he’d be pleased that one of his most original and neglected works might reach a wider public, albeit in a new guise.

Has Britten been an influence on your own music? I’m thinking particularly of the string quartets.

His instrumentation and orchestration has probably had the biggest single influence. The way he reinvents old forms, such as the passacaglia – which he used many times – is also intriguing. But more than that, it’s his willingness to be emotionally direct which I find so appealing. His music has a spontaneity which I adore; there’s no struggle in order to enjoy it, since his technique is so impeccable. The music seems to move in a direction that it could only go, and in this sense there’s a mastery of judgement – of effortlessness and inevitability, as in Bach or Mozart – which is extremely seductive. His ability to enthral and yet not confuse is, for me, one of the hallmarks of his genius.

How would you describe your new Cello Sonata?

This is a joint commission between Wigmore Hall and Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival, which will host the premiere by Guy Johnston and Tom Poster at the end of September. I got to know Guy’s playing more intimately while composing the work, and have since become a huge fan. Tom, who I’ve worked with before, is also a superb musician, so I couldn’t hope to be better served. The work is written in memory of someone I’d worked with closely, who passed away in his early 50s, and this lends the piece an elegiac quality at times. It’s in several movements, some linked, and includes an arrangement of a 16th Century pavane, in a movement entitled Ghost Dance, as a link to Hatfield House, where Elizabeth I lived as a child.

Is it important for you to have a friendship / understanding with your performers in the way that Britten had with his?

In a few cases, such as my Clarinet Concerto or Letters from Warsaw, I’ve written for close friends whose playing I know well. In other cases, it’s important for me to have a clear grasp of the technical capabilities of the performers, assuming it’s a commissioned work. Aside from that, it’s a question of trying to ‘ find the right notes’, as Britten put it, and to that extent the process is a personal and sometimes chaotic one, involving a large number of ideas and sketches. I get nervous sharing drafts before the piece is finished, as a player’s response – whether positive, negative, or silent – can divert you from what you intended to do.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing some guitar miniatures for a superb young player, Alex Hart, as well as a set of pieces for Tom Kimura – a wonderful pianist who I studied with at The Purcell School. After that, I’m starting a string piece for the Britten Sinfonia, and also gathering ideas together for a Violin Concerto.

Joseph Phibbsarrangement of Britten’s orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers for the chamber forces of the Hebrides Ensemble and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn receives its world premiere at Snape Maltings on Tuesday 24 August. More information can be found here.

On record: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: A Sea Symphony (Hyperion)

Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
A Sea Symphony (Symphony no.1 in B flat minor) (1903-09)
Darest thou now, O soul (1925)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following his impressive take on A London Symphony (given in the 1918 version), Martyn Brabbins here continues his Vaughan Williams cycle with its predecessor A Sea Symphony, coupled with a choral setting which reinforces the composer’s adherence to Walt Whitman.

What’s the music like?

Now that most of the numerous orchestral pieces Vaughan Williams wrote at the turn of the 20th century have been recorded, the context for the present work is far clearer than hitherto. Yet it still took six years before A Sea Symphony was completed; during which time, both its actual concept and his musical aesthetic underwent radical change. The premiere in Leeds on 12th October 1910 may have overshadowed by that of the Tallis Fantasia just a month before, but the larger work likewise confirmed VW’s arrival as a leading composer of his generation.

While not an overly long work (lasting around 67 minutes), A Sea Symphony feels expansive as compared to Vaughan Williams’s later such works and benefits from a formally focussed approach. This it receives from Brabbins, who controls the first movement securely from its magisterial opening, through its eventful if prolix ‘development’ then on to a rapt conclusion. The ensuing nocturne is less problematic and Brabbins duly points up the contrast between its fervent climax and pensive introspection on either side. He secures a rousing response in the scherzo, with its unabashed echoes of Elgar and Parry, then steers a convincing course across the expansive finale – whether in its cumulative earlier stages, its eloquent central vocal duet or the closing stages with their stark juxtaposing of bracing peroration and ethereal postlude.

Throughout this recording, the playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is responsive and committed, while the singing of the BBC Symphony Chorus leaves nothing to be desired in terms of tonal finesse and rhythmic articulation. The two soloists are less consistent. Marcus Farnsworth lacks presence during the combative baritone contribution to the first movement, though his stoic musing in its successor is far more persuasive. A soprano with the requisite mezzo range, Elisabeth Llewellyn yet evinces a vibrato in her higher register that can prove distracting, but this is less of a problem in the finale – she and Farnsworth exuding warmth and ardency in its lyrical central duet, while bringing poise without indulgence towards its close as vocal phrases stretch out in parallel to the expanse of that ‘journey’ being evoked.

Does it all work?

Yes, notwithstanding those reservations noted above. Brabbins adopts a firm though flexible approach which is demonstrably in the lineage of Sir Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley. Both orchestral playing and choral singing are first rate (in advance of that for Andrew Davis in the BBC’s first VW cycle a quarter-century ago), and there is once again an enterprising coupling. Darest though now, O soul finds Vaughan Williams briefly revisiting a Whitman text he set 18 years before in Toward the Unknown Region, reduced to a hymnal setting for unison chorus and strings.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound finds an ideal balance between spaciousness and definition, with probing notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. If Brabbins’s Sea Symphony is slightly less fine than his London Symphony, it is a consistent follow-up in what looks set to be impressive VW cycle.

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read more about Martyn Brabbins here