If you haven’t already heard of Joseph Phibbs, it’s time to sit up and listen. The last of the season’s BBC commissions, Joseph Phibbs’s Partita, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, premiered at the Barbican under the masterful guidance of Sakari Oramo. With a glance back at the traditional Baroque suite, a favourite of our beloved 17th- and 18th-century composers, Phibbs has taken these traditional self-contained dance forms and explored them within a contemporary setting. With an air of nostalgia verging on pastiche, Phibbs deserves praise for creating something that bypasses predictability without crossing over in to the realm of the dangerous ‘modern’. The first four of six movements; Prelude ‘Notturno’, Courante, Sarabande and Ground, were played through without break and twisted and turned in unexpected and humorous ways that captivated the audience’s attention. This was not music to accompany thought, but music that inspired thought of only the music and what was coming next.

Alina Ibragimova © Eva Vermandel
Alina Ibragimova
© Eva Vermandel

The Prelude signalled a gradual awakening of the orchestra, beginning softly with the violins in careful choreography, calling on the other instruments to join this exquisite flashmob. Oramo masterfully played with texture, never allowing any break between one sound and the next; a piece with no endings or beginnings. Teased with snippets from different instruments, the audience was invited to listen in on a call-and-answer argument among the woodwinds, but the real emotion of the music was never as prominent as in the penultimate movement, the ‘Vocalise’.

Partita is dedicated to Phibbs’ former teacher, American composer Steven Stucky, and its elegiac tone resounds like a moment of reflection amidst a musical chaos. With almost exotic sounding percussive interruption, it does not take itself too seriously; time it right and the result is monumental, but time it wrong – emphasised by Oramo’s need to mouth ‘NOW’ rather prominently for a small flute interjection – only speaks to highlight the intrinsic importance of every carefully woven note.

Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2 may seem like an odd choice to continue with, but there were many similarities between his and Phibbs’ work. Unlike a conventional concerto, this was a hide-and-seek variations piece, spiralling through different themes and bringing them back under different guises. Alina Ibragimova played with enthusiasm and energy that far outstripped the orchestral accompaniment. She introduced the movement and the orchestra summarised the themes with the violins' boundless chromaticisms. However, there was a lack of fluency at times and the percussive interjections were in contrast to the purposeful execution in the Phibbs. The hidden variations gave way to a sense of déjà vu and disorientation; the contrasts between tranquil romanticism and rugged folk music were reverently Bartók, but the mere exhaustion of the piece’s execution took a toll on the audience’s stamina. Praise to Ibragimova for an inspiring delivery; this was no easy feat and her energy did not falter once.

Closing the concert, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem was just as terrifying and fantastic as promised. As an artillery officer in France during the First World War, Vaughan Williams’ sense of loss pervades his other famous works, namely the Pastoral Symphony and Sancta civitas. Dona nobis pacem is as equally reflective of the widespread social fears of the time. With religious text intermingled with Walt Whitman’s poetry, the effect is profoundly British, bloody and patriotic. The contrast between soloist soprano, Sarah Fox’s dulcet tones and the harsh echoing of the chorus, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” was chilling, the rumbling timpani and the brass fanfare marching us to a musical war. Baritone Duncan Rock was the perfect front man for a soldier’s grief, his honeyed tones conveying a raw sense of emotion and he enunciated each word clearly.