Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartet No. 2,
A Haydn Prelude
Fantasias for Viola and Piano
Anthony Hewitt (pn);
Robertas Servenikas, cond;
Diana Brekalo (pn);
Sarah-Jane Bradley (va);
GUILD 7381 (64:32)
Live: London 8/5, 9,10/2011
Another disc of music by yet another youngish (b. 1969) composer, Peter Fribbins, whose music is described in the note as “refreshingly memorable, passionate and direct. The composer’s distinction from many of his contemporaries rests principally on his willingness and ability to communicate: his music has clarity of expression and a post-Beethovenian resonance.” He is also willing to write in traditional forms such as string quartet and concerto, which the notes allude to mysteriously as “received genres.” And yes, this disc has a title:
The Moving Finger Writes,
taken from the first line of a famous poem by Omar Khayyám which
wittily interpreted as the “Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award.” Fribbins used it as the printed preface to the score of his Piano Concerto.
The string quartet was composed in 2005, shortly after Fribbins was asked to write a short prelude for organ based on the English hymn tune
. Having thus gotten interested in the tune, he used it as a basis for the quartet, which was written for the Chilingirian String Quartet. Guild has printed the first four bars (with a pick-up note) of the hymn tune to allow listeners to hear the way in which he uses it, particularly since all four movements “grew from” those opening bars, but Fribbins turns it around, introduces sharply etched rhythms not in the original tune, and otherwise disguises it. The bottom line, however, is that the quartet is extremely interesting, somewhat related to the neoclassical style that permeated Europe in the late 1920s-early ’30s but filtered through the lens of Fribbins’s own imagination. Thus we get rising chromatic passages played by cello and viola in open fourths, a peculiarly Haydnesque passage near the end of the first movement that leads into the second, almost canonic writing in the second movement (which Fribbins admits was cribbed from the organ version), a third-movement Scherzo which again uses rising (and falling) chromatics (and yet more Haydnesque allusions, at least to my ears) in its pizzicato passages, then ending with a final
movement that includes surprisingly bitonal harmonies of a much more modern bent than the rest of the quartet.
Considering my allusion above to the “Haydnesque” qualities of the quartet, it seemed logical that Fribbins would have composed a short piano piece commemorating Haydn’s bicentennial. Written also as a tribute to pianist John McCabe who recorded Haydn’s complete keyboard sonatas, Fribbins quoted “directly from two of them.” It is played here by Anthony Hewitt in a quiet, elegiac style, almost treating the brief Haydn quotes—as well as the original material—in a mood of nostalgia. Most of the music, despite the piece’s brevity, is indeed slow-paced; except for the Haydn quotes, most of it is written in half and whole tones, and it rather fades out at the end into nothingness.
Whether planned or not, this brief piano prelude acts as an excellent lead-in to Fribbins’s concerto, despite the fact that this is very much in the neoclassical mold (indeed, to my ears even a bit reminiscent of Stravinsky’s
). The portentous moving finger which “writes, and having writ, moves on” is alluded to in the score by the darkly dramatic orchestral writing, nearly always underscored by three timpani strokes in succession. It was written for pianist Diana Brekalo, who is our soloist here, and in a sense my feeling about this music is that it is almost like a symphony in which the piano is another instrument rather than a “concerto” in the conventional sense. Much of the time the piano colors or underscores the orchestral writing; occasionally it plays flourishes and phrases which bring it to the fore, but the orchestral commentary is always a musical answer to the piano’s statement or vice-versa. Eventually swirling strings and neoclassic brass fanfares create a sort of vortex into which the music is sucked, the piano giving sad commentary in the ensuing ebbing of the orchestra into quietude. But quietude does not equate to restfulness, and the triple timpani strokes and astringent brass return in a newer guise. It is indeed as difficult to pull free of this music’s vortex as, one presumes, it is to escape the moving finger. A strange, repetitive oboe melody opens the second movement, and its theme is used by the piano to create variants. Here, the writing was closer to that of a conventional piano concerto, even in the use of soft winds (clarinet and flute) to add commentary to the piano part. The Finale, like the opening movement, alternates between strident and lyrical figures, and again the writing is more in the vein of a “conventional” piano concerto, in fact sounding more like a late-romantic work than in the first movement (note the lyric wind passage, increasing in tempo until the almost Prokofiev-sounding piano part comes in). I was particularly struck by the remarkable emotional commitment of conductor Servenikas and the Royal Philharmonic, but this makes sense considering that this is a live recording, and I enjoyed Brekalo’s playing as well.
After such a serious and heavy work, the
Fantasias for Viola and Piano
returns to Fribbins’s more lyrical side, in this case using as its basis a Welsh folk tune,
Bugail Yr Hafod
or “When I Was a Shepherd” in the first piece. The second, Fribbins tells us, was written later for Hungarian violist Eniko Magyar, thus it is based on a Hungarian folk song whose title translates as “I Thought It Was Raining, But It Was My Eyes That Were Wet.” There are moments of seriousness, even sadness, in the first piece (until I heard this, I hadn’t realized that Welsh shepherds were sad) and strong emotions bordering on elation in the second (which I would have thought would have been the sadder of the two). The duo of Bradley and Hewitt plays them with great sensitivity and a full identification with the material. This was, for me, an excellent disc full of surprises, and I commend it to your attention.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
A Haydn Prelude by Peter Fribbins
Anthony Hewitt (Piano)
Concerto for Piano by Peter Fribbins
Brekalo Diana (Piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
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