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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Robert SIMPSON (1921-1997)
The Complete Symphonies
CD1

Symphony No. 1 (1951) [28:36]
Symphony No. 8 (1981) [43:51]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. 16-17 April, 9 July 1996
CD2

Symphony No. 2 (1955-56) [28:25]
Symphony No. 4 (1970-72) [46:17]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Wessex Hall, Poole Arts Centre, Dorset, 8-9 December 1991, 29 July 1992
CD3

Symphony No. 3 (1962) [32:02]
Symphony No. 5 (1972) [40:07]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. 14 February (Symphony No. 5), 24 May (Symphony No. 3) 1994
CD4

Symphony No. 6 (1977) [30:51]
Symphony No. 7 (1977) [28:02]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 3-4 September 1987
CD5

Symphony No. 9 (1987) [49:44]
Illustrated talk on the work by the composer [17:58]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Wessex Hall, Poole Arts Centre, Dorset, 7-8 February 1988
CD6

Symphony No. 10 (1988) [57:17]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, 4-5 February 1991
CD7

Symphony No. 11 (1990) [28:56]
Variations on a theme by Nielsen (1983) [25:47]
City of London Sinfonia/Matthew Taylor
rec. St. Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London, 11-12 December 2003
Available separately at full price as CDA66890: (1, 8); CDA66505 (2, 4); CDA66728 (3, 5); CDA66280 (6,7); CDA66299 (9); CDA66510 (10); CDA67500 (11)
HYPERION CDS44191-7 [7 CDs: 73:03 + 74:50 + 70:59 + 60:06 + 67:54 + 54:38 + 54:55]

 

Simpson studied with Herbert Howells between 1942 and 1946. Newcomers should note that Simpson’s music carries no obvious imprint from Howells. He was born in Leamington Spa and died in Tralee, County Kerry, disaffected with the BBC for whom he had worked between 1951 and 1980.

I have known the Simpson symphonies and followed many of their premieres and later broadcasts since 1972. As a student in Bristol I remember the broadcast premiere of the awesome Fifth Symphony. I had, at that time, also heard the Third Symphony on a Horenstein-conducted Unicorn LP since reissued by NMC.

Simpson had many productive and sometimes conflict-torn years inside the BBC. His educating advocacy certainly made its impact on me. I still remember his broadcast symposium on ‘The Symphony’ with Deryck Cooke and Hans Keller and have a tape of it somewhere. Then again his work for Sibelius, Nielsen and Bruckner bore fruit in broadcasts of live concerts and studio events. He championed Havergal Brian contra torrentum and his Brian legacy is a series of BBC broadcasts of all 32 symphonies. They were conducted by a motley crew that included John Canarina, Brian Fayrfax, Adrian Boult, Vernon Handley, Myer Fredman, Stanley Pope, Charles Mackerras, Charles Groves and others.

Simpson the composer is handsomely served by this Hyperion box. If confirmation was needed of his standing and mastery as a leading symphonist of his time this set provides it with thumping conviction. This is music that knows nothing of surface glamour and is impatient of short attention spans. Sobriety however does not exclude drama, humanity and a quality close to awe. The composer often gives the listener the sense of being close to a creative process that appears to be sweeping him along. Its inevitability is part of it potency.

The present Hyperion set bears witness to some of his influences. Nielsen appears especially in the reverential contemplative second movement of the First Symphony - those rural pipings link strongly with the quietude of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Nielsen symphonies. The outer movements embrace the rhythmic heroic world of another hero, Beethoven and mesh them with Nielsen 4 and 5. The Beethoven allegiances are specifically with symphonies 3, 5 and 7. The work ends in the blazing affirmation of an A major chord. Launy Grøndahl and the Danish Radio Orchestra gave the premiere but the work was taken up by Boult. He it was who recorded it for EMI. It has been reissued as part of the EMI Classics British Composers series.

The Eighth Symphony arose from a challenge set by Simpson himself to write a symphony to a scheme set by someone else. This was provided in mood form by the painter Anthony Dorrell. The work was premiered by Jerzy Semkow at the RFH in 1982. The stellar blaze of the scherzo with its romping horns and rampant trumpets is deeply impressive. Its ruthless rhythmic figures sometimes recall a very different but equally unglamorous symphonist, the Swede Allan Pettersson. In the finale the severity of the string writing even introduces some dissonance presented four-square. There is some wonderfully life-enhancing antiphonal hunting brass in the finale.

The Second Symphony dates from three years after Simpson's book Carl Nielsen, Symphonist. The Nielsen ‘stamp’ is patent in this music - especially in the explosive elements of the Fourth Symphony. There are also shades of Sibelius especially the Prelude from The Tempest. Indeed the more placid quiet voices from Sibelius's incidental music as well as echoes of the Fourth Symphony can be heard in the Largo Cantabile. Mixed in, one can also discern the long lyricism-laden lines of late Rubbra. The eruption and haymaker dances of the Non troppo allegro are full of rhythmic engagement and fascination sharing also the joyous gauche qualities of Nielsen's Four Temperaments.

The Fourth Symphony was commissioned by the Hallé Orchestra and premiered by them under James Loughran. It was Simpson’s first four-movement symphony. It is notable also for a peremptory Beethovenian style for the Presto redolent of the Bonn composer’s symphonies 3 5 and 7. This romping and rampant writing carries over into the finale. The slow movement includes the singing elegiac tone of Joseph Koos' cello. The notes tell us that, in the original version of this movement, the lyrical quality was even more expressive.

The third disc is the one to start with. It includes Simpson's most popular symphony, the Third, with his most impressive, the Fifth. The Third is dedicated to the British composer Simpson idolised: Havergal Brian. It carries some of the elder composer’s awkward stop-start approach. It remains impressive and even cussèd. Dissonance is even more noticeable but modest persistence brings the usual sturdy rewards with Simpson. The work ends in a passive gentle downwards curve; no volcanic gestures here. It would be ten years before Brian made a major and steady impact. Once again Simpson was the prescient pioneer. His persuasive powers resulted in Boult agreeing to conduct Brian's Gothic Symphony in 1966.

The Fifth Symphony was the work that first drew me to Simpson. I heard a broadcast of the premiere conducted by Andrew Davis. Its whispered tension contrasted with furnace blasts were captured on one of those little Philips cassette recorders from a cheap FM radio I had bought in Currys. Insistently galloping furies alternate with the quietest whisperings and pipings in occluded vales. The side-drum raps along in the scherzino third movement of the arch-like five. A sombre adagio is disrupted by the blast of the finale - a sustained molto allegro e con fuoco lasting more than fifteen minutes. The headlong pelt of the music sounds Nielsen-like, meshing the anger of the Fourth with the enigmas of the Sixth. There is a Bernard Herrmann-style death-hunt thundering out and merging into a massive and obsessive peal of bells at 12:00. This rises to whirling hysteria and a 13:09 again sounds out the influence of Nielsen. The roar at 13:38 is like the wild-belling of Roy Harris 's symphonies of the 1940s. There is some stunning writing here. It ends in a sustained quiet glimmering diminuendo high in the violins and fading to niente.

Like symphonies 4 and 5, numbers 6 and 7 were written in quick succession with their creative processes overlapping. They are single continuous half-hour spans with the major struts of the span in this case separately tracked: two for 6 and three for 7. Momentary resemblances in the Simpson Sixth to Sibelius 6 are soon expelled in favour of the irrepressible and unruly bustle of life, grouchy, serene and majestic in the character of Alwyn's Fifth Symphony. A stomping and echoing majesty storms through the final heroic bars. This is the rise to manhood with no charting of decline.

The Seventh is dedicated to Hans and Milein Keller. It was written not to any commission but for an RCA recording project that never came off. The Second Symphony and this one were to appear on the same LP. It had to wait until 1984 for its premiere with Brian Wright and the RLPO. This work always strikes me as a sort of analogue for a philosophical discourse. Its stylistic parallels lie with Sibelius 4, the great arching first movement of Shostakovich 6 and the bustling and rustling energetic discharge of Rosenberg's Sixth Symphony.

Next we come to the three final symphonies written between 1987 and 1990. The Ninth Symphony is on the same disc as an extended talk about the symphony by the composer. This is done with typical modesty and conviction. It is dedicated to the composer’s wife, Angela. The first of three sections of this continuous span of music is grand with echoes of a severe Bachian chorale prelude and an awed grandeur also resonates through the finale pages of this section which pitches directly into the grand guignol of the central episode. Its Beethovenian helter-skelter and brassy staccato contrasts with the liberated athletic cantilena of the strings before the serenity sometimes gaunt and sometimes warm of the final chapter. The risen triumph of the final five minutes – quite apart from prompting passing thoughts of the outrage radiant in Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony - is ethereal without being in any way like Tavener or Macmillan. It harks back to the chorale prelude atmosphere of the opening.

The Tenth Symphony is in four movements. There’s a crushingly emphatic allegro, a breathy allegro leggiero piping its pianissimo way through a cold Eden, the enigmatic sphinx-like gaze of the andante and the superb Neptune glimmering of a prefacing Largo give way to a lengthy and fantastic Allegro con brio. This ends with a stubborn outburst given definition by a brawl of brass and timpani. I still find this a difficult piece perhaps in much the same way that I still find the Arnold symphonies 7 and 9 intractable yet intriguing.

The last CD holds the Eleventh Symphony and Simpson’s Nielsen Variations. The Symphony is dedicated to composer-conductor Matthew Taylor who premiered the work at Cheltenham Town Hall in 1991. Like numbers 2 and 7 it is for a small classical orchestra with an extra pair of horns. Like 1-3, 6 and 7 it is all over in about half and hour. Despite these diminutive references this is not a symphony of small gestures. It is typically serene in the first movement and chirpily playful and full of fantasy in the finale before a startling outburst that quietly fades, breathes new air then decides to end. It is a fascinating example of a composer finding renewal in how to bring a symphonic work to a satisfying conclusion.

The only non-symphonic work in the set is the Nielsen Variations. These take a jolly theme from Nielsen’s incidental music for Ebbe Skamulsen (1925) and wrest from it nine variations and a finale. Variation 3 is Simpson’s homage to the pastoral stillness captured by the Danish composer in his symphonies 3 and 4. Variation 7 is both explosive in the manner of Nielsen 4 yet as it closes looks to the soloistic intercourse of the Sinfonia Semplice. The ten minute long finale starts with regret-tinged music for strings, some flighty heroism with punched out brass chords recalling Roy Harris and Simpson own Fifth Symphony and a final belled and hammered ascent to grandeur and C major. The Variations were written between symphonies 8 and 9.

The Hyperion presentation for the set is sober; almost ascetic. The cover of the box and booklet is of the Vela pulsar nebula - the glowing remnants of a Supernova.

This set is the way to acquire the Simpson symphonies. There is no equivalent although you can of course buy the individual Hyperion issues at full price and enjoy a more sumptuous packaging. Each of the seven discs is packed in a basic white paper envelope with one face transparent so that you can read the CD label. Each envelope is sealed with a sticky flap so each time you have to peel the flap back to get at the disc. The case is a basic stiff-card wallet in the manner of Brilliant Classics.

I think Simpson would have welcomed this ever so slightly spartan finish which focuses down on the music and allows its fascination to work its benevolently insinuating magic without even the chance of distraction.

The First Symphony is available in the important pioneering recording by Boult (EMI Classics) as is the even more forbidding Third Symphony on NMC (Horenstein) with the Clarinet Quintet.

It is worth noting that but for Matthew Taylor’s conducting of ‘his own’ symphony: No. 11, this would have been a Vernon Handley-conducted event. Handley's support for the Simpson cause has gone largely unsung. It is good that he can be heard now in ten of the symphonies including the Tenth which is dedicated to him.

Calum Macdonald's notes guide us through the eleven symphonies and the forty years they span. There is a tad too much musicological exegesis for my liking but no doubt this will help others. The compact essay is across ten pages and is reproduced in French and German as well as English. Full discographical information is provided.

If you have never heard any Simpson then start with the Fifth Symphony and then move to the First and Fourth. If you need a more accessible entry-point then try the delightful Nielsen Variations first and orientate yourself to Simpson’s soundworld.

I hope that one day someone will have the temerity to record Simpson’s original version of the massive Fourth Symphony - well worth the wrath of true believers.

Meantime this set is the way to acquire the Simpson symphonies and those who chose to wait now reap the rewards at Hyperion’s Helios price. And next the string quartets?

Rob Barnett

 



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