BBC Symphony Orchestra premiered Phibbs’ Partita

BBC Symphony Orchestra premiered Phibbs’ Partita

On May 21, 2016 Sakari Oramo conducted the world premiere of Joseph Phibbs newest orchestra composition Partita at the Barbican to great critical acclaim: “an excellent buy” (Classical Source); “if you haven’t already heard of Joseph Phibbs, it’s time to sit up and listen” (BachTrack); “Phibbs’s greatest strength here is his use of the orchestra. He also has a good feeling for shaping and pace” (The Arts Desk).

Listen to the performance


The Sunday Times
May 29, 2016
“Phibbs’s writing is brilliantly assured, and his orchestration is not only deft but scintillating”

May 23, 2016
 “If you haven’t already heard of Joseph Phibbs, it’s time to sit up and listen… The first four of six movements were played through without break and twisted and turned in unexpected and humorous ways that captivated the audience’s attention.”

Classical Source
May 21, 2016
 “Joseph Phibbs's latest BBC commission, Partita, is an excellent buy. Phibbs’s acute ear for colour and caprice brings alive some seriously appealing music.”

The Guardian
May 22, 2016
“It’s the Sarabande that follows on from this that finds Phibbs at his most distinctive: the stately old-style dance is made to morph into a kind of tango, punctuated by woody percussion, with an acerbic sound halfway between Britten-esque eeriness and a cabaret band.”

The Arts Desk
May 23, 2016
“Phibbs’s greatest strength here is his use of the orchestra, the lines clear and bold and always clearly delineated through the instrumental groupings. He also has a good feeling for shaping and pace, skilfully connecting together the short movements into a unified 20-minute span.”


by Joseph Phibbs

A dash (–) indicates no break between movements:
Prelude (‘Notturno’) –
Corrente –
Sarabande –
Vocalise –

Partita is loosely modelled on the traditional Baroque suite, a genre favoured by many 17th and 18th Century composers, including Purcell, Handel and J.S. Bach, whose solo violin and keyboard Partitas are among the most celebrated works bearing that name. Many of the shorter forms commonly associated with the suite are self-contained dances, and this work could therefore be seen as a contemporary exploration of some of these traditional structures within an orchestral setting. The work comprises six short movements, the first four of which follow without a break.

1. Prelude (Notturno)

The opening Prelude (Notturno) presents a gradual unfolding -or ‘awakening’- of the orchestra, starting with hushed, slowly rising strings and finally giving way to a clarinet solo, which reappears later in the work. One by one the remaining wind instruments enter the texture, answering each another in what eventually becomes a mass of interlocking melodic figures.

2. Corrente
A rapid Corrente eventually breaks out in the violins, characterised by fast, rising passagework which cuts off intermittently to reveal contrasting episodes (strident brass fanfares at one point; a slow lamentoso solo in the cor anglais at another), before a reprise of the opening, now with fuller scoring, leads into the work’s first climax.

3. Sarabande
The darker Sarabande which follows retains the traditionally slow, stately style of this popular dance, but is presented here in a more sombre and –eventually - abrasive guise, the characteristic accent in the middle of the bar becoming ever more violently displaced. The piano features here, opening the movement at the extreme top of its register.

4. Ground
A Ground closes the first half of the work, the repeated bass pattern which defines the form reduced here to two notes, over which increasingly large chords are built.  

5. Vocalise
Vocalise is more melodic in nature, and this this regard departs from the more dance-orientated style of some of the previous movements. Following an introduction for trumpet and strings, a lyrical theme unfolds in the violins, this building to a climax before the second prominent solo of the movement, a cello melody presented in the instrument’s high register with strings, emerges.

6. Chorale
The final movement, Chorale, presents a sequence of constantly ascending cluster chords, passed around the various orchestral families, and the work concludes in a blaze of light.  

Partita is dedicated to the memory of my former teacher and friend, the American composer Steven Stucky (1949-2016).

Photo: Chris Lee, New York