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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Robert SIMPSON (1921-1997)
Symphony No. 3 (1962) [30:54]
Clarinet Quintet (1968) [34:23]
London Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein
Bernard Walton (clarinet)/Aeolian String Quartet
rec. Barking Assembly Hall, 5 June 1970 (symphony); Christ Church, Chelsea, 6 August 1970 (quintet). ADD
O
riginally released on Unicorn-Kanchana LPs then reissued on CD Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD2028
NMC ANCORA D109 [65:44]

 

 

By the time of his death in 1997 Simpson had the satisfaction of seeing most of his music commercially recorded by Hyperion. Those discs stand as a reference, a source of stimulation and challenge, a constant in the catalogue. Let’s not forget though that he had a discography, albeit meagre, before Hyperion began their odyssey with his scores.

This CD picks up part of that early legacy and presents it in all its pioneering freshness. Let’s also remember the other recordings. Pearl GEM0023 preserves the Element Quartet’s pioneering work for the first three quartets. Unicorn LP UNS234 included both the clarinet quintet recorded here as well as Simpson’s first string quartet. I am sure that there was also an LP of some of his piano music on Trax but that came towards the end of the 1970s. There was also a speckle of brass band or brass ensemble pieces on a miscellany of labels including RCA (James Stobart).

Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra took the First Symphony into the studio for EMI and this was issued in 1956 as His Master's Voice BLP 1092. It was reissued on LP with Fricker’s Second on HMV 20 Series HQM 1010. The Simpson, Fricker and Orr's Symphony in One Movement are available now on EMI Classics’ 7243 5 75789 2 9 (see review).

The Third of Simpson’s eleven symphonies was commissioned by the CBSO, presumably as part of the Feeney Trust scheme. It was dedicated to a composer Simpson had championed during his time as a senior producer at the BBC. It was at his instigation and through his tenacity that all thirty-two of Havergal Brian’s symphonies were recorded in concert or in the studio. All were broadcast. That he managed to persuade the conductors Leopold Stokowski, Adrian Boult, Vernon Handley, John Poole, Leslie Head, Ole Schmidt, Harry Newstone, Stanley Pope, Myer Fredman, John Canarina, Charles Mackerras, Lionel Friend and Brian Fayrfax to mount performances over two decades is remarkable.

The Third Symphony is as unrelentingly serious as all his symphonies. It is airily touched with the benign influence of Carl Nielsen whom Simpson had also championed in the dark days of the 1960s. Simpson published in 1965 a joint study of Nielsen and Sibelius. The Unicorn recording is not as open and sweet as it might be for the strings but it is grippingly real in the case of the brass which register with as much presence as they do in the Nielsen cycle which Simpson, Bob Auger and Ole Schmidt were to tackle with the same orchestra during the early 1970s. This is a work that pipes up in dank Bosch-like realms. It protests with unalloyed vehemence and squares up pugnaciously to inimical forces. Seemingly out-faced by the first movement’s belligerence the second of the two movements is initially hesitant but with wisps of lyrical address from the clarinet (4:05). This gradually develops a tempestuous unruly energy (10:42) with Nielsen’s wheezing village bands goaded into flight, without peace, without respite.  There is an explosion of deafening force at 12:10 and this raps out with the sort of electric discharge you might find if you married Beethoven 7 with Nielsen 4. What amounts to a suddenly becalmed epilogue of two or so minutes ends on a peaceful pedal point fading into niente. It still seems to me almost grafted on.

The 1968 Clarinet Quintet dates from six years after the Third Symphony. It is more accommodating of Webernian dissonance entwined around a core of gestures that in fragment recall the Nielsen Clarinet Concerto. Only in the finale does something approaching a lightness of being provide contrast. Between the Symphony and the Quintet there were comparatively few works. These were Simpson’s busy BBC years.  In fact five years of silence divide the cinderella Piano Concerto of 1967 from the Symphony. Three year after the Quintet came two talismanic works. The brass band piece Energy (1971) links with the star-burst explosions of power that run through his music. In this respect Simpson recalls the chiselled thunderstorms of the Andrzej Panufnik symphonies also often flanked by whispered meditations. The massive - and later revised - Fourth Symphony (1972) picks up on his Beethovenian idée fixe later continued into a consecutive sequence of three of the string quartets. Only George Rochberg has coasted as close in his quartets. All of these works can be seen as laying the path towards the tumultuous Fifth Symphony.

Hugh Ottaway’s notes are too musicologically dense for me - thickets of technical analysis. On the other hand Martin Anderson - whose Toccata label has just issued the Tovey symphony - provides the perfect biographical outline.

This is a valuable document of the world’s earliest awakening to Simpson’s distinctive and completely genuine voice but you will have to come to Simpson on his terms. He is not going to do anything as obvious as to pander to the listener. The closest he comes to this is in the finale of the Quintet where a Haydn-like graciousness passes by with a benign smile.

Rob Barnett

Link to Robert Simpson website

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