GMCD 7343 – I Have The Serpent Brought – Music by Peter Fribbins

THE ANGELL TRIO – Frances Angell (piano), Jan Peter Schmolck (violin), Richard May (cello)

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Fanfare Magazine January 2011

What is it with William Blake paintings this month? This is the second album to have his elusive, allegorical work grace a cover, elsewhere giving a disc of John Plant’s vocal works some literary emphasis, and in the case here with Blake’s Eve and the Serpent , an allusion not to his own poetry, but confusingly to John Donne’s Twicknam Garden , a line of which supplies the subtitle to Peter Fribbins’s First String Quartet. Donne and Blake could hardly be bettered to convey high-minded Britishness to a listener new to Fribbins (of which I am one), but my main impression after listening to this immensely rewarding collection of chamber music is of a continental flavor, with overtones not of Tippett or Elgar, but of Ravel, Debussy, and even Janáček.
There is something especially French in tone about Fribbins’s piano trio. Marked drammatico , the first movement’s hushed, tense violin writing opens out quickly into a rhapsodic melody, punctuated by some very Ravelian piano harmonies. By contrast, the second movement starts off icily with the cello bringing the only lyricism and the bass-note piano chords giving a bell-like, funereal tread, before passion is ignited again in a bustling climax. It is a beautiful trio: poised, lyrical, and poignant, despite the flashes of wit and exuberance. Although I can’t quite see the Mahlerian influences that Fribbins himself cites, the sardonic flavor of Bartók is apparent especially in the final movement. The cheeky use of pizzicato and the variations around a four-note motif create a more playful, almost salon world than expected from a composer influenced by Tippett.
Fribbins’s First String Quartet, commenced when he was just 20, strikes a bleaker note and, in the quieter, more reflective passages, an English chamber-music style, especially true of the second movement’s aching, poised climax. It is a concise, angry work, tightly thought-out from its dark, twisty opening to the jagged staccato writing of the final bars, leaving the listener unresolved in midair. Although not intended to be programmatic, the Donne reference is not superfluous, such is the work’s uneasy blend of beauty and danger.
Commissioned by the performers here, the Cello Sonata is the most wistful, conventionally lyrical piece on the recital and again very French in its plangent, mellow lyricism, although this is also partly due to the limpid refinement of York and Wallfisch’s playing, big-name artists to have on any label. Despite its quicksilver change of ideas and harmonies-repeated figures underlying the other instrument’s melodic line, virtuosic flourishes turning suddenly to Baroque spareness, the sonata still maintains a clear linear journey to its splashy finale.
Structure is again key to the quintet for clarinet and strings, very much the spikiest work on the disc, with the formally laid-out four movements paying homage to Brahms’s and Mozart’s own clarinet quintets, yet Fribbins breaks free from any classical ties, reveling in the contrasting battle of strings and astringent clarinet, while seamlessly working in various motifs. The clarinet, sometimes biting commentator, sometimes mournfully lyrical, becomes Fribbins’s ideal tool to confound expectations, conjuring up beauty just where you least expect it, like in the otherwise frenetic second movement. The ending is simplicity itself, with just a simple strummed chord from the cello, the absence of the clarinet becoming like the death of a character. The superb playing from James Campbell and the Allegri String Quartet brings out the color and anarchism of the piece.
Despite my frequent name-checking and Fribbins’s own acknowledged influences, I sincerely feel Fribbins is a confident, young (b.1969) voice in composition, respectful of past chamber-music style and secure and inventive with tonality. Just the caliber of the artists participating on this recording proves I am not alone in wishing these works gain wider currency. As ever with Guild, the production values are high, with excellent notes and bios. Sound is airy yet defined, although the piano feels too distant in relation to the closely miked strings. Only the cello sonata sounds noticeably different in ambiance, despite the fact that all four works were recorded in different venues at different times. This is an elegantly performed collection of music that can be alternately wistful, savage, respectful of tradition, and yet also playful. If Fribbins is not the most cutting-edge of new composers, then he is certainly the best-informed and one of the bravest to toe the tonal line. A winner, I hope.
Barnaby Rayfield

Music Web 10 November 2010

Peter Fribbins writes what many would consider unusual music for someone in their forties. A student of Hans Werner Henze and now Principal Lecturer at Middlesex University, his chief interest is chamber music… Fribbins is also Artistic Director of the London Chamber Music Society concerts. ‘I Have The Serpent Brought’ is a collection of four works completed within the last decade; it takes its name from the title given to his First String Quartet. Sinewy, decisive and full of forward motion and revelling in at times quite spare instrumentation, Fribbins’ style is closer to that of Britten or even a mellow Shostakovich than the experimental writers of the second half of the twentieth century.
Fribbins’ style is not, though, spiky or clipped, rough or dissonant. There is very little of Bartók. Just as the string sound he calls for is neither lush nor indulgent of any extra-musical, pastoral traditions. Significantly, the composer’s determination to shift tonalities as the thematic developments throughout each movement dictate is far stronger than any trend to create them merely for effect. Pleasingly and unusually, his sense of the Romantic is greater than even a conscious call to Romantic tonality (and tempi) would be – not unlike Britten’s allusions, in fact. In short, his string (and clarinet) style and idiom are likely to have wide appeal. Particularly when one is aware of his refreshing commitment to variety … these movements come and go without ever lingering.
The playing of the Allegris – with Daniel Rowland and Peter Carter as first violins in the First Quartet and the Clarinet Quintet respectively – is impressive. They have managed to combine a resonance and depth of string sonorities with tempi and attack that do the music full justice.
The Piano Trio, the first and longest work on the CD, doesn’t shrink from bleakness. Writing in octaves and tenths competes with cantabile passages to establish a tension that never quite resolves itself. Here the Angell Trio brings an insight and enthusiasm individually and as three which truly reveal the essence of Fribbins’ musical ideas.
Nicely paced because nicely placed between the String Quartet and Clarinet Quintet, the Sonata for Cello and Piano [tr.s 8-10] seems to explore fresh though not wholly unfamiliar territory. One is struck again by the chordal writing which always supports the melodic ideas. These at times present something of a moving target. Raphael Wallfisch and John York are equally enthusiastic about the music. They have obviously thought hard about the best way to make the frequent accelerandi and ritardandi work as well as they do. Which – yet again, in Fribbins’ case – is not for effect; but for the thematic integrity of the work.
The String Quartet is an early work, though completed (relatively recently) over eight years. Not for nothing is it inspired by the first stanza of John Donne’s remarkable Twicknam Garden. Fribbins is at home with the metaphysical and speculative as with the abstract. One’s only slight doubt might be that the range of techniques employed – col legno, staccato, pizzicato – might risk inflating (or, worse, burst out of) the time and proportions in which he has otherwise chosen to scale the Quartet. The Allegris, though, respect the spirit of the music and bring it to us whole.
The writing in the Clarinet Quintet is clearly aware of the two greatest forerunners – those of Mozart and Brahms. It’s more virtuosic and more concerned with the emphases that can be given to the wind instrument than it is interested in exploring combined string-woodwind textures. Although not his most recent work, it seems to hint at a less ‘established’ and perhaps even vaguely serial style than do the other works on this CD. The playing of James Campbell (with the Allegri) is vivacious and highly communicative.
This is a collection that’s somewhat unusual, then. And all the more enjoyable for that. There’s nothing else to speak of by this composer in the catalogue. If he’s new to you or if you want to explore a relatively singular vein in contemporary British music, you can buy it with confidence. The recording is close and helpful to the intimate sounds. The booklet provides well-packed information on the musical concerns of Peter Fribbins, and details of the performers. Well worth a look.
Mark Sealey
Peter Fribbins’ approachable and melodic style is somewhat unusual and likely to appeal to a wide audience.

International Record Review June 2010

New Piano Trio. String Quartet No. 1, ‘I Have the Serpent Brought’. Sonata for Cello and Piano. Quintet for Clarinet and Strings.
Well estabhshed as a lecturer and administrator, notably at Middlesex University (where he organized an important seminar on the music of Zemlinsky, the proceedings from which were reviewed in May 2008), Peter Fribbins (b.1969) also has a growing output to his name. This first disc devoted to his music confirms his awareness of the potenfial of instrumental combinations that acknowledges their historical context without inhibiting
their present and, by extension, their future viability.
The First String Quartet was begun but did not reach its definitive form until 2004. The subtitle, drawn from John Donne, has ominous implications which break free from a fraught slow introduction into an Allegro of real impetus.’ Here and in a rhetorical Recitativo that precedes the dynamic finale, the influence of Berg and Zemlinskv can be detected, whereas the rapt Adagio looks back – by no means passively – to an earlier Viennese cra which more fully informs the three other pieces, all completed during 2002-05.
Most ambitious is the Piano Trio, whose sizeable first movement might almost be a work in itself except that the probing slow movement and incisive finale open out its range of motifs and expression accordingly . In that its initial two movements fall short of such purposeful contrast, the Cello Sonata feels less satisfying overall – but this is not to deny its confident handling of a difficult medium or the heady momentum of its final `Toccata’. Even so, the Clarinet Quintet seems the more fully realized – not least because its motivic flexibility is deployed so deftly in an incisive `Scherzo on seven notes’ or so eloquently in the subdued `Interlude’; these being framed by a pensive Andante which is transformed into a finale of unforced serenity. Mozart, Brahms and Reger may continue to dominate the medium, but Fribbins’s piece is a notable contribution.
when Fribbins was just into his twenties
The performances are responsive not merely to each work’s technical demands but also to the spirit of renewed classicism informing them. The sound makes the most of the different cenues involved (save for a touch of harshness in the Piano Trio), and there are informative if overly earnest booklet notes by Christopher Dromey. Too conservative for the neo-modernists and too ambivalent for the photo-fit tonalists among us, Fribbins is a composer with something to say and it is to be hoped that this release will not have to wait too long for its successor.
Richard Whitehouse

Musical Ponters

Allegri Quartet and James Campbell (clarinets),
Angell Piano Trio
Raphael Wallfisch and John York (cello & piano)
This portrait disc surveys the chamber music of Peter Fribbins (b. 1969), a thoughtful composer who eschews the latest fads in favour of solid craftsmanship, as exemplified by the long gestation of his Donne-inspired string quartet (1990-1998-2004).
Several excellent ensembles are brought together, all recorded satisfactorily. The music grows on you and is well described in Christopher Dromey’s helpful analytic notes.
Fribbins is “unafraid to write in ‘received’ genres”, but teases with tonality “frustrated at most turns”. It is music which grows on you with repetition. I would guess Fribbins to be an excellent teacher at Middlesex University, where he is Musical Director and some of this music was recorded.
Peter Grahame Woolf