Compositions inspired by Warsaw ghetto escape to debut at Hampstead Arts Festival

Tamsin Wayley Cohen will be performing works by Britten, Bruch, Ysaye and Joseph Phibbs

Tamsin Wayley Cohen will be performing works by Britten, Bruch, Ysaye and Joseph Phibbs - Credit: Archant

Composer Joseph Phibbs uses Jewish folk tunes in a ‘living memorial’ to the survival of Krzysztof Chorzelski’s mother, who was smuggled out of the ghetto.

A few months ago at the Presteigne Festival I heard the premiere of a new string quartet by composer Joseph Phibbs that was one of the events of my musical year.

It was immediately engaging, lucid, strong and memorable – all the things you look for in a new work. And I shouldn’t have been so surprised, because Phibbs’ output during recent years has been impressive – including a score for the Philharmonia Orchestra that won a British Composer Award, and a BBC Symphony Orchestra commission for the Last Night of the Proms.

Both were so successful that he has repeat commissions for the Philharmonia and the BBCSO coming up in 2016. But meanwhile, he has two chamber works about to get world premieres in the Hampstead Arts Festival.

One is a suite for unaccompanied violin which, as Phibbs says, “has been on my back-burner for a long while. Writing for a solo string instrument is not an easy thing, it’s so exposed; but I’ve based this on found material – a Corsican folk song that weaves into the texture and gives the music a melodic core”.

The other is a work for viola and piano called Letters from Warsaw which again uses found material – this time two Jewish folk songs which reflect the subject-matter of the piece.

As Phibbs explains, “it’s based on the family history of the viola-player from the Belcea Quartet, Krzysztof Chorzelski, who’ll be premiering the piece in Hampstead and who found these letters which tell how his mother was smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto as a small child and hidden from the Gestapo.

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“As Krzysztof is the happy consequence, I saw the piece as a sort of living memorial to what happened. The music isn’t narrative in a specific way, but the world of the story seeps into its four movements. And the folk songs of course give it a certain colour.

“One of them I already knew, but the other I found fortuitously when I was writing the score. I was staying at the house in Aldeburgh where Imogen Holst once lived, and where there are still a lot of her books. Digging around, I found a collection of Jewish songs. And that gave me exactly what I needed. Like it was meant to be”.

Krzysztof Chorzelski, Lauren Durantal (piano) & Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin) play works by Britten, Bruch, Ysaye and Joseph Phibbs: Mon 16th, 7.30pm, St John’s Downshire Hill.