Joseph Phibbs: Rivers to the Sea
Mahler: Symphony no.2
Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus
Kate Royal soprano
Monica Groop mezzo
Esa-Pekka Salonen conductor
There can be few challenges for a composer more daunting than writing a companion piece to a Mahler symphony. Fortunately Joseph Phibbs has the measure of the task, and his new work, Rivers to the Sea, neither competes with Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, nor is it overwhelmed by the scale or impact of that monumental work.
The piece was commissioned to celebrate the 18th birthday of the Anvil concert hall in Basingstoke, where is received its premiere last week. It is no doubt easier to make an impression in that more intimate venue, but the work also has enough substance to make a mark in the Festival Hall too.
But the scale of the piece is deceptive. A large orchestra is kept busy for the best part of half an hour, yet the musical material it explores is slight. Phibbs takes a laudably disciplined approach to his task, devising a selection of colourful but straightforward ideas and allotting each a separate movement. The formal plan resembles a symphony – four movements arranged around a central interlude – but the actual music is anything but. There is little development here, and Phibbs instead presents each movement as what he calls a 'musical snapshot', drawing on specific sonorities and colours, and laying out each over the course of a four or five minute movement.
If this relationship between colour and form suggests Debussy, that's unlikely to be a coincidence. The mention of the sea in the work's title demonstrates how, like Debussy, Phibbs uses the idea of undulating waves as inspiration for his orchestral textures. The big difference is the (English?) reserve with which Phibbs applies the idea. Unlike Debussy, he always has his feet very securely on dry land and never gets carried away in the moment. And that small group of musical ideas, elaborated within clearly defined confines, creates a sense of discipline in the music that Debussy would be unlikely to recognise.
Other voices are also heard in the background. The work is dedicated to this evening's conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and there are traces here of Salonen's own music, particularly the minimalist pulsations from the double basses and the maximalist presto runs in the upper woodwind. A much stronger presence is Salonen's compatriot and hero Sibelius. The horn writing throughout the work harks back to Sibelius' symphonies, and Phibbs' reserved approach to his otherwise Romantic aesthetic suggests the economical discourse of Sibelius' late symphonies. There is also some Latin percussion in the mix, although this seemed intended more for colouration than rhythmic propulsion.
The piece received as fine a performance as any young composer could ask from the Philharmonia. There was little here to tax the orchestra, apart perhaps from the more complex textures of the final movement. Some great opportunities for the orchestra to show off its principle players though, and honourable mentions go to the clarinet, harp, tuba and xylophone soloists.
After two years of Mahler celebrations there is a very real danger of audience fatigue. That's never a problem for Salonen though. He knows how to keep even the most familiar music fresh, and led a performance of the Second Symphony that was an interpretation in every sense. The conductor writes in the programme that he sees the symphony as a journey from darkness to light, which was exactly how he presented the work. The focal point was the first choral entry towards the end of the finale. Everything up to this point seemed to build up to it, with fast tempos, unrelenting pace and a real sense of structural cohesion in the preceding movements. But once the choir had made their entry, Salonen considered redemption to have been achieved, and pulled back the tempos for an expansive but still intense conclusion.
His is a convincing approach, but much is lost in the race to the conclusion. In order to create that sense of structure and unity in the first movement, Salonen maintained fast and rigid tempos throughout. This had the frustrating effect of obscuring many of the details. Also, he rarely lingers in the moments of quiet before each of the many storms, over-riding the contrasts that Mahler sets up to heighten the impact of his climaxes.
The second movement made up for the lack of rubato in the first. Some elegant playing here from the strings, a welcome respite from the continuous intensity, which soon returned in the third. Excellent singing from Monica Groop in Urlicht. She was a late substitution, but gave an impressive performance, although her tuning went a little awry in the last minute or two of this fourth movement. Kate Royal was more operatic in her reading of the soprano part, with lots of passion and lots of vibrato. It didn't quite fit, although it may have done if she had been partnered by a similarly florid mezzo. The Philharmonia Chorus seemed small, at least for this work, but just about managed to dominate the orchestra when required.
Good playing from the orchestra in the Mahler. Salonen goes for emphatic articulation, especially from the strings, and they were able to provide exactly the punch he was looking for. It wasn't all ideal though, there were occasional tuning problems in the woodwind, and the off-stage brass had a pretty bad night of it. But on the whole this an engaging and convincing Mahler performance, and yet another reminder, if any were needed, that when Salonen is on the podium nothing will ever sound routine.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is availible to listen on demand until 5 July at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b01jz43s