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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
to Robert Simpson website