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Robert SIMPSON (1921-1997)
Symphony No 5 (1972) [38:53]
Symphony No 6 (1977) [33:12]
London Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis (No 5)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves (No 6)
rec. May 1973 (No 5) and April 1980 (No 6) at the Royal Festival Hall, London
LYRITA SRCD389 [72:05]

“Robert Simpson was arguably Britain's most important composer since Vaughan Williams; he was certainly one of the century's most powerful and original symphonists anywhere”.

I vividly recall reading this introduction to Martin Anderson’s obituary for the composer in The Independent on the train up to Huddersfield in late November 1997. It was the first I had heard of Simpson’s passing – I knew he’d been seriously ill but the news still floored me. Back then I certainly felt the prefix un- was missing from the fourth word of Anderson’s tribute. Almost a quarter of a century later, in the year of Simpson’s centenary, I’m certainly not the only one who would also have deleted the phrase ‘…since Vaughan Williams’. Of course Martin Anderson knew Simpson very well and his obituary is both touching and impassioned– it’s here)

I was travelling to the Yorkshire town at the time to set up the shop for that year’s Contemporary Music Festival; there would be no Simpson played there that year, or any other year for that matter. What makes music ‘contemporary’ in any case? I would argue that the rigour, good taste, level of risk and quest for something beautiful or profound that this composer attempted to bring to bear in every bar he wrote utterly enhance the ‘contemporariness’ of its style and sound, and these features coalesce gloriously in ensuring the relevance and resilience of the symphonic concept. Robert Simpson was never behind the times, as the William Glocks of this world may have wished potential audiences to think – the fact is we are still trying to catch up with him. Not least to blame in that regard is the seemingly drastic reduction that seems to have materialised in human beings’ attention spans across the last few decades – perhaps it’s too simplistic to blame either Bill Haley and the Comets or the worldwide web but the fact is, unless it’s Mahler or Bruckner (ie known entities) large scale symphonies that unfold with Beethovenian or Brucknerian pace and grandeur seem to be quite beyond the reach of many listeners.

How ironic it seems then that Hyperion were only able to take the plunge in recording the first of the 22 Simpson discs they have produced (to date) when the composer received a grant of $10,000 from the mysterious Rex Foundation. This independent arts, education and scientific charity was established by the great psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead to commemorate their late roadie Rex Jackson in the early 1980s, and their guitarist Phil Lesh (who rather improbably studied under Berio) was the driving force behind the Foundation’s most welcome (if rather eccentric) decisions to repeatedly support the recordings of the likes of Simpson and his old friend Havergal Brian on the other side of the Atlantic. With Hyperion subsequently having recorded all of Simpson’s eleven symphonies, fifteen string quartets, and virtually all his other chamber, choral, brass band and piano music between 1987 and 2004, an unprecedented sequence released to virtually unanimous critical acclaim, one might have expected the momentum to establish him as a British giant would have intensified, yet if anything the opposite seems to have happened. Between then and now, the only releases to have emerged seem to have been NMC’s reissue of the pre-Hyperion LPs of Simpson (his Symphony No 3 with the LSO under Horenstein (yes, THE Jascha Horenstein!) with the Clarinet Quintet, both originally released on Unicorn - review) and two discs on Lyrita; the Cello Concerto played (inevitably and brilliantly) by Raphael Wallfisch (coupled with similar works by John Joubert and Christopher Wright - review) and now this new issue of the broadcast premieres of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. The extraordinary progress that had been made around the turn of the millennium in attaching to Simpson the pre-eminence his music merits has stuttered, and there will be many among a new generation of music-lovers who are most likely completely unaware of this extraordinary corpus.

So I was extremely reassured (even moved) to have read the two splendidly informed and heartfelt reviews of this disc recently filed by my learned colleagues David McDade and Nick Barnard. I concur with all they have to say and have no desire to reiterate their thoughts verbatim. Readers will by now be in little doubt that I am especially sympathetic to the former’s view that a reappraisal of Simpson’s output and his place in the grand scheme of art-music is urgently overdue (and not just British music – it is somewhat embarrassing that the mastery that was obvious to an American rock musician and a Russian Mahler pioneer has been so comprehensively and shamelessly ignored by so many of the British movers and shakers empowered and able to make a difference). I cannot help but wonder if the BBC’s steadfast antipathy to Simpson is a toxic relic of the often heated relationship he had with the organisation during the years he worked there as a renowned producer and broadcaster nearly half a century ago. If Donald Macauley’s indispensible biography of the composer (The Power of Robert Simpson – Xlibris 2013) reveals a prickly, easily frustrated figure who seems not to suffer fools gladly, as a young man I would often tune into his Radio 3 broadcasts, and his regular talks and strands like ‘The Innocent Ear’ unfailingly revealed an avuncular, relaxed, accessible expert, an individual who could effortlessly fulfil the corporation’s original Reithian mission of ‘Inform, Educate and Entertain’ with inimitable wit and lightly-worn erudition. This was the same Simpson who contributed a wonderfully accessible 18 minute analysis of his Symphony No 9 (his masterpiece, and along with those by Mahler and Bruckner one of the three finest ‘Ninths’ since Beethoven) to Vernon Handley’s magnificent Hyperion recording.

There is a profound warts-and-all humanity at work throughout Simpson’s music. He ‘knew himself’, and both the symphonies on this exceptional Lyrita issue (the Fifth especially) reveal flashes of humour and digression as well as fury; to my ears most powerfully of all they revel in self-deprecation and hyper-objectivity. Just before he completed the fifth symphony Simpson endured an acute brain illness (a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage) which nearly killed him. It is fascinating that many of those perceptive critics who more or less unanimously praised the symphony at its premiere detected some kind of personal crisis in the music; the composer strenuously denied there was one and frankly what I hear is the pacifist composer’s sheer bloody-mindedness and his fury, even incredulity at the state of the world. The cold objectivity of the ambivalent, hollow, sustained quiet chord which begins and ends the work seems to represent some kind of stepping outside of our physical and psychological experience as if seeking to view ourselves as a bystander would – it’s as honest and humane a gesture as anything in Beethoven. Andrew Davis’ 1973 live premiere with the LSO (I’ve heard tapes of it before – there’s a bit of hiss on this disc but it still amounts to a terrific restoration) is electrifying and embodies a holistic and insightful interpretation rather than an under-rehearsed read-through. It provides a thrilling, visceral complimentary experience to the Handley studio recording – both are essential documents. Simpson was thrilled with the premiere and the many plaudits which came his way. As a postscript to this however, it is interesting to note that Andrew Davis conducted the work twice more over the next 17 years, but as Macauley reveals in his book Simpson’s respect for the conductor seemingly diminished over this period. When Davis turned in what the composer deemed to be a lacklustre performance of the fifth at the 1990 Proms Simpson was far from surprised and explained in a letter to Macauley that he had tried to get John Drummond to programme the recently recorded Ninth Symphony for the concert but the BBC man equivocated and suggested Simpson send the score to Davis. He did so, but despite a friendly follow-up letter heard nothing, and rightly or wrongly assumed that the conductor deliberately chose the simpler option of sticking with the more familiar (to Davis) Fifth Symphony. I recall hearing that performance - the first time I’d ever heard the work. Whatever its shortcomings, it still managed to completely blow me away.

Compared to Handley’s recording of the Sixth Symphony, Sir Charles Groves’ 1980 premiere with the LPO is more problematic and constitutes a noticeably less cohesive experience, although it’s virtually impossible not to be impressed by the work, especially if one is familiar with it. As my colleagues have described, its shape was inspired and determined by the journey of a nascent organism from conception to full growth, an idea suggested to Simpson by the work’s dedicatee, the gynaecologist Ian Craft. As it is the details in this performance – and the intricacies of Simpson’s orchestration are fascinating in themselves – emerge with sufficient clarity, but the narrative flow is certainly lacking compared to Handley’s superbly rendered studio account. Whilst Simpson was naturally somewhat underwhelmed – Macauley states that on hearing a tape of the performance he is reputed to have uttered the single word “No” – he was more forgiving of Groves and the orchestra (due the extreme lack of rehearsal time they had been afforded) than he would prove to be be a decade later with Andrew Davis. As for my response to hearing Groves’ determined reading, frankly I find it a joy to now be in possession of a perfectly decent reproduction of the first performance of what is by any measure a symphonic masterpiece which only improves as the years go by. As a historical document, it amounts to manna from heaven for Simpson buffs like myself.

Besides, it’s this singular composer’s centenary this year; given where we are all at it is difficult to imagine there will be a flood of new recordings any time soon. Before the pandemic struck I mentally processed my own personal wish list for the ‘celebrations’. Top by some margin was a premiere recording for Simpson’s magnificent Flute Concerto of 1989, perhaps paired with his only other significant orchestral work that has not been laid down to date, the 1991 Variations and Fugue on a theme of J S Bach for strings, which I have never heard. Not long before his passing, Simpson was featured as Composer of the Week on Radio 3 and I managed to tape Susan Milan’s magisterial performance of the concerto (with the City of London Sinfonia and Richard Hickox). I treasure it and find it utterly incomprehensible how this half-hour masterpiece can have been so comprehensively overlooked over the last quarter of a century; for my money there is no better flute concerto, period; I even include the wonderful example by Carl Nielsen, one of Simpson’s heroes in my assessment. As far as I can establish, the composer’s only other substantial works that remain unrecorded are a trio for clarinet, cello and piano from 1967 and an arrangement of Nielsen’s Commotio for two pianos. Otherwise we can at least be grateful that the rest are there for posterity on Hyperion and one or two other labels. (I can assure readers I am not resorting to idle hyperbole in claiming Simpson’s fifteen completed quartets to be at least equal in stature to those by Shostakovich and Bartók).

In any case, it is incumbent on any self-respecting admirer of true art music (ie music which demands considerable levels of patience, concentration and reflection from the listener) to acquire this disc, and to raise a glass to the memory of this remarkable composer. His time will surely come, even if we have to do more prodding and cajoling in the meantime. In considering once again the question of what actually constitutes ‘contemporary music’, let me conclude with Robert Simpson’s own words which I quote from Donald Macauley’s book, and which begin the article entitled ‘Symphonies’ which the composer originally compiled for The Listener in April 1973. The great man’s language is every bit as surgically precise and purposeful as his music:

“People who write symphonies usually do it because they feel able to; a lot of those who don’t feel able tell everyone else the symphony is dead. If they think this, they are quite right not to attempt symphonies. I take leave, however, to question their right and even their common sense if they will insist on telling me (or anyone else who feels able to compose symphonies) that it is wasted effort. They had better get on with their work and let me get on with mine….

“So let’s all get on with our jobs, provided they are jobs. The fact that a composer may not be interested in the ‘relevance’ of anti-this-or-that is no reason to accuse him of being out of touch: his lack of interest may be the result of his being only too well in touch.”

Richard Hanlon

Previous reviews: David McDade ~ Nick Barnard

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