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A premiere at Zankel

Music Review
Sat Oct 20th, 2018

In honor of Carnegie Hall’s 125th anniversary, 125 new works are being commissioned by composers from around the world.  Many musicians and composers are brought in for premiering these works.  On Thursday evening we heard the premiere of Joseph Phibbs’ third string quartet performed by the Belcea Quartet which was the centerpiece of a well-balanced program that included Mozart and Mendelssohn. This new entry by a young but established British composer was certainly deserving of the warm welcome it received.  I found it exciting, gratifying, and full of familiar sounds that I could relate to. An entry in the program mentions two reference points: Steven Stucky and Benjamin Britten. There were lots of references which makes this new music like walking into a room full of old friends.

Phibbs moves with confidence and fluidity from one idea and reference to another with astonishing ease.  One moment we are at the Suffolk seashore hearing gulls, breaking waves and a gentle breeze – the home of Britten with which Phibbs has become familiar. He is a trustee of the Britten estate. In the next moment we are hearing a sentimental memorial to Stucky, his teacher at Cornell where Phibbs studied between 1997 to 2001. Birdsongs reminded me of Messian. A section was based on a Beethoven quartet,  a model that serves well. I was conscious of structure, of technique and of real sympathy for each of the four instruments. The first three movements are marked “Introduction – Illuminations, Presto and Notturno e fantasia.” The next two are marked   ♩ = ca.72 and ♩ = ca 69.  In the fourth movement the first violin, played by Corina Belcea, floated over a background of furious pizzicato playing, a folk tune that had gypsy associations. The final movement was like a Pollock painting with dabs of sound building a canvass of lightness and quickness; it evolves into a coda which sounded familiar, ending on an upbeat flourish.

The Belcea quartet, headquartered in England, takes its name from its first violinist who is from Rumania.  Her voice is stunning—strong—confident, rich and full of excitement and energy.  She is backed up by Polish violist Krzysztof Chorzelski and two Frenchmen : Axel Schacter, violin and Antoine Lederlin, cello.  They form a strong team of seasoned players. They have their own style, they love their music and they have fun. It was a joy to hear them.  They played Mozart’s Prussian Quartet, K.589, and the last quartet of Mendelssohn with careful respect and with joy.

Phibbs returns to London for a premiere of a piano trio on October 21.  His String Quartet Number 3 will receive its London premiere at Wigmore Hall in November, again played by the Belcea Quartet. For more information see Phibbs' website: