The Quartet No 14 of 1990 is a very satisfactory work. It benefits
from a wonderful design in the classical tradition. It is in four movements
beginning with a cogent allegro non troppo, beautifully written, cleverly
interwoven and possessing an invigorating verve. The Vanburghs, one of our
very finest quartets, maintain both the pulse and interest with a consummate
skill and the rhythmic energy they inject into this very special music restores
our faith in this most intimate of mediums.
The Presto does not seem to be much different in tempo from the first
movement but it continues with its emphasis on energy and is impeccably played.
The Andante is beautifully crafted and develops from a cello theme.
It has a warmth and serenity and is an excellent model for students as to
how to write a slow movement of a quartet. The Vanburghs playing and tone
is ravishing. Some of the nuances are deeply impressive.
The final Allegro varies in quality. At best, it is very good but
somehow it seems to lose its way suffering from the syndrome that only
professionals really understand, the syndrome of 'being written out'. But,
do not let that deter you. It contains some good music and is perfectly played
but the 'written out' syndrome of the central long pianissimo section does
The Quintet for clarinet, bass clarinet and string trio dates from
1983 and has two slow movements sandwiching an allegro. It takes a great
composer to bring off this design where the slow music is prominent. I think
it works here, mainly because of the effectiveness of the clarinet writing.
While both clarinetists are good, Fiona Cross's bass clarinet playing is
sumptuous. The opening Adagio tranquillo is beautifully atmospheric
and rewarding. The brief allegro does not work; it is not of sufficient
contrast to the opening adagio but seems to evolve from it. However,
when it is animated and strong, which is only comparatively briefly, it is
rather good. The final adagio is really nothing more than a
Form and structure may be a problem in the Quartet No 15 of 1991.
It is in one movement divided into three main sections ... a heavy introductory
adagio, a long middle section called severo which
is severe and intense and the final allegretto is another
coda. One is left with the impression that Simpson
had to write another quartet and relies on his skill and technique
to guide him into this composition. It sometimes sounds like the work of
a weary composer as the example of Shostakovitch's last quartets
may equally testify. Nonetheless, this Quartet No 15
has an admirable terseness at times and some exquisite moments thus throwing
up a major problem. How do you evaluate a work that is acceptable but contains
a few moments that are like priceless jewels? The 'written out' syndrome?
In conclusion, I want to state that Robert Simpson is one of our finest
composers. Of that, there is no doubt. He was also a very congenial person,
an honest man of integrity and courage. He was unbiased, totally professional
and a generous personality! Some of his music is of the highest quality;
his Symphony No 1 was a revelation when first heard in the early 1950s
and remains a cracker of a piece. Some of his other symphonies are also very
impressive as are his concertos although his Piano Concerto has come
in for some unfair criticism and - would you believe it - by non-pianists?
The Vanburghs are simply excellent on this well-recorded disc.