Phibbs: The Canticle of the Rose
This disc of vocal and chamber pieces by Joseph Phibbs, a former pupil of Birtwistle’s, marks another welcome instalment in NMC’s excellent Debut Discs series. The relatively spartan textures of these pieces are more convincing than some of Phibbs’s writing for larger ensembles. These works draw you in with a well-judged pacing of their sometimes frenetic activity and mesmerising stillness.
Such juxtapositions can be found within pieces, such as Flex for flute, violin, cello and piano, or the little Agea for string quartet, but also occur strikingly between movements, such as the final two songs of The Canticle of the Rose for soprano and string quartet. The penultimate song, which gives this collection of Edith Sitwell settings its name, is her reaction to the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Phibbs’s music is seemingly transfixed by the text, especially as performed by Helen-Jane Howells and the Navarra String Quartet. It would have been obvious, easy even, to end there, but the fateful scurrying of ‘Madam Mouse Trots’ effectively opens the work out again.
Another song cycle, From Shore to Shore, is equally effective, with Michael Chance’s countertenor and James Boyd’s guitar combined in unhackneyed lyricism, while the shorter pieces are also well worth exploring.