- “In more than fifty years of concert-going I cannot remember an event that more electrified an audience than the world premiere of Joseph Phibbs’ Tenebrae in St Albans on Saturday.Although only 15 minutes long, the work which was commissioned by the St Albans Bach Choir in memory of former member Mary Draper, was big in many other aspects. It used not only the Bach Choir and orchestra but also an off-stage choir made up of the Abbey Singers, with the Lay Clerks of the Cathedral Choir and soprano soloist Lesley-Jane Rogers. For the unaccompanied choir, Phibbs used words from the Latin Mass while the main choir and orchestra was provided with settings of one modern poem, David Gascoyne’s The Uncertain Battle, and three seventeenth-century metaphysical pieces.
The Uncertain Battle [is a] wonderfully-brassy and hard-sounding setting. The deep and sombre setting of Henry Vaughan’s The World contrasted well, and the fast, staccato of Henry King’s Sic Vita added huge excitement to the work, which concluded with an exquisite setting of Phineas Fletcher’s verse which begins Drop, drop slow tears.
Written specifically for the choir and St Albans Abbey, the piece was thoroughly exciting. Although it was essentially a modern work, it was not at all difficult to listen to, and it was clear that the choir thoroughly enjoyed singing it. Equally, Sinfonia Verdi, the orchestra backing the choir, gave an outstanding performance… It was a brilliant performance by all concerned.
Conductor Andrew Lucas can be proud of his efforts with the choir and orchestra, which once more produced outstanding results which gave the packed Abbey audience a truly memorable evening.”
- John Manning, The Herts Advertiser
- “The richness and variety of the high level of choral work in and around St. Albans was marked up again last Saturday with the Bach Choir’s programme at the Abbey. Unfortunately a clash of not only choral concerts but also new commissions occurred that evening.The Bach Choir had been touched by a legacy from a former member, Mary Draper, and devoted most of it to a commission for a choral piece, Tenebrae, from Joseph Phibbs. So many good things arose from this imaginative action, not least an unusual request for both Bach Choir and off-stage (Abbey Singers and Lay Clerks; director Simon Johnson) choirs, together with solo high soprano and small orchestra, Sinfonia Verdi. Further, the composer had visited the main choir during their preparations, and the soloist had also been at that meeting. Three out of the four stimulating poems he chose come from the 17th century and deal with classically ‘metaphysical’ matters; three are brief movements with Latin Mass text, given only to the off-stage performers. The intention is that the work’s title should convey contrast and opposites, such as movement between turbulence and calm, and darkness to light; the two choirs join forces only for the last pages.
Merely a look at the total text attracts interest, and Phibbs has added a thrilling composer’s dimension. The choir found the preparations challenging (‘chords out of nothing, and rapid delivery of dissonances’) but seem really to have looked forward to the rehearsals from the outset. Lesley-Jane Rogers was outstanding in the stratospheric soprano role, sometimes making a 9th vocal line, above the divided choir parts. The composer was well pleased, the work deserves more performances, and quickly, after this significant world premiere.
Another stylish concert from the Bach Choir, in turn thrilling, surprising and one to reflect on.”
- John Westcombe, St Albans Observer
- “Joseph Phibbs, born in London in 1974, received his early musical education at the Purcell School, where he was inspired by an Indian teacher, sixteenth-century harmony and poetic texts, before proceeding to King’s College, London, where he studied composition under Harrison Birtwistle.Numerous important commissions followed: I well remember hearing his fifth BBC commission Lumina, broadcast from the BBC Last Night of the Proms, 2003. This atmospheric piece already marked him out as a brilliant young composer raring to go, introducing his own stunning soundworld with flair for dizzy high registers, heady bursts of bold brass and percussion, and eerie sequences from the strings.
Phibbs describes how, on a visit to St Albans at Christmas 2004, he was struck by the extraordinary acoustic effect of the first carol, with the (cathedral) choir singing from the far end of the Abbey. So when commissioned later to write a new work for St Albans Bach Choir, to be performed there, he incorporated an ‘offstage’ chamber choir of choristers into the piece, as well as a high soprano soloist, to join them offstage too.
The world première of the new work, entitled Tenebrae, duly took place at the Abbey on 1st April 2006, before a full house audience, with the celebrated solo soprano Lesley-Jane Roberts reaching stunning top B-flats with ease, surrounded by around twenty boy and girl choristers and lay clerks. The angelic sounds issued from behind the altar for the opening ‘Kyrie’ and then from beyond, distantly intoning further texts from the Latin Mass, deftly intoning and alternating with the poetic texts sung by the main choir. As Lesley-Jane Rogers told me after the concert, ‘In fact, during the noisy orchestral opening of the ensuing setting of the sonnet: The Uncertain Battle’ (for the main Choir) we (herself and offstage choristers) went quickly up the long spiral staircase to sing above from the organ loft, gathered round the organ console’.
Seated myself near the back of the Nave, I caught the full impact of the mystical balance between the nearly 200-strong Bach Choir, in full view on stage in front of the altar, and the ‘misterioso’ sound of off-stage choristers and solo soprano wafting from heavenly realms above and beyond. In his pre-concert talk, Phibbs had mentioned sometimes using the device ‘to add weight you add up top, not bass’, and this was certainly a feature of both his Proms piece (Lumina) as well as here in Tenebrae. Another feature is that he likes to choose texts that suggest ‘movement’, so his stormy battle sequence (using David Gascoyne’s 20th-century sonnet) was followed by the awesome sequence The World, leading onto the intrepid Sic Vita, featuring bursts of ‘low bassoon’ and ‘biting trumpet sounds’ as Phibbs himself describes them. Stunning top notes from Lesley-Jane (‘senza vibrato’ throughout) intercept from afar to punctuate this vivid fast-moving setting of Henry King’s seventeenth-century poem, amidst rapid percussion and searing strings.
By contrast in one of the closing sequences, the Agnus Dei, two muted trumpets and mournful drums from the Herts-base orchestra, Sinfonia Verdi, added darker tones to enhance the dulcet sound of the offstage choristers, soon joined too by the main Bach Choir, all under the steady baton of St Albans Abbey’s Master of Music, Andrew Lucas, to realize true ‘Tenebrae’ indeed.”
- Jill Barlow, Tempo magazine
Dreams of a Summer Night (2000)
- “…the first performance of the mere seven minutes of Joseph Phibbs’s Dreams of a Summer Night was well worth giving…it is not only brilliantly written for orchestra, which is remarkable enough for a composer in his mid-twenties, but also ingeniously constructed…a tautly sustained display of orchestral fireworks”
- Gerald Larner, The Times