Album review: Peter Fribbins – The Moving Finger Writes (Guild)

Posted on July 12, 2012 by

String Quartet no.2 ‘After Cromer’ (2005-6)
A Haydn Prelude (2008)
Piano Concerto (2010)
Fantasias for Viola and Piano (2007-11)

Chilingirian Quartet; Anthony Hewitt, piano; Diana Brekalo, piano; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Robertas Servenikas, conductor; Sarah-Jane Bradley, viola

This second album on the Swiss label Guild, featuring the work of English composer Peter Fribbins, marks a development in his compositional style from the first, I have the Serpent Brought (2010- on the same label).

Fribbins is a difficult composer to categorise. Just when the gestures get more expansive and we think we understand his direction, Fribbins is capable of delicately blindsiding us with A Haydn Prelude a short, static, bittersweet little piece.

Contemporary British composers either tend towards unforgiving modernism, or to the opposite end of the spectrum, with tonality reigning supreme. Fribbins occupies neither of these camps, unashamedly showing his influences from composers from Haydn to Tippett, but also the darker hues of Penderecki and Schnittke.

Fribbins’ music is extremely concentrated. On this second CD, he never lets a theme or an idea go without recycling or re-imagining it. The album covers six years of compositional activity, but little ideas are passed around between the pieces: they are all strongly interconnected, even to some pieces on his previous CD.

The Second String Quartet is based on an old English hymn tune (Cromer) and stems from an earlier organ piece by Fribbins. The quartet juxtaposes harsh chromatic intervals with soaring consonances. The frequent use of suspensions and cadences is particularly effective.

The most attention-grabbing piece of the CD is the Piano Concerto, performed by fiery German-Croatian pianist Diana Brekalo and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Lithuanian conductor Robertas Servenikas.

Fribbins writes for relatively small forces, about the size of a mid-to-late 18th century orchestra (a tactical move, according to the composer, who hopes to encourage more frequent and inexpensive performances) but the way he uses these is, at times, positively Mahlerian. The concerto opens with an almost Purcell-like theme followed by a fugal answer. This theme forms the basis of the whole work, but Fribbins seldom varies it harmonically. Instead he is sufficiently adept in playing with the orchestral textures and colour that he completely avoids all danger of stasis or repetition.

A hallmark of this album (along with many other of his pieces not released here) is that Fribbins writes poignant second movements. After the stormy and tempestuous 1st movement of the Piano Concerto, the second is delicate, aching. There are subtle continuations and reference points, material set into different contexts: the harsh and abrasive timpani stabs heard in the 1st movement are transformed and given to the woodwinds in a quiet dynamic in the 2nd for example. The second movement of the String Quartet also subtly adapts the themes from the first movement. This time, however, Fribbins uses drones in the low parts with sophisticated counterpoint in the high parts, strongly reminiscent of an ecclesiastical choir or organ.

This whole album shows a further maturation of the composer’s style. It doesn’t just deserve, it positively demands repeated listening.

Two London concerts feature Peter Fribbins’ music this autumn. See Bachtrack for details. 

Review by Robert Edgar.

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