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Robert SIMPSON (1921-1997)
A Centenary Release – Premieres live from the Royal Festival Hall, London
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. 3 May 1973 Royal Festival Hall London (No 5); 8 April 1980 Royal Festival Hall, London (No 6)
LYRITA SRCD.389 [72:05]

Back in 2006 when Hyperion released their superb boxed set of the complete Simpson Symphonies the Gramophone wrote; “One of the outstanding recording projects of our time … this deserves to stand as a monument while other more superficially glamorous ventures rise and fall around it. If it does not do so, and if it does not eventually force Simpson’s breakthrough into the orchestral repertoire, there will truly be no justice”. Seventeen years on and this is the first release of a ‘new’ recording of Symphonic Simpson since that seminal set. I would imagine that most people considering acquiring this new disc would already own part or all of the Hyperion cycle which will remain the reference set for years to come. So does this archival new disc recorded in somewhat hissy analogue sound really merit much attention. The answer is a resounding yes with performances – well one performance for certain – that any Simpson aficionado simply must hear.

This Lyrita/BBC licensed disc, released to celebrate the centenary of Simpson’s birth, brings together the two world premiere performances of Simpson’s Symphonies Nos 5 & 6. Both were given in the slightly unforgiving acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall (pre-acoustic improvements) in 1973 and 1980 respectively. The disc is labelled “A BBC recording” and does not seem to be part of Lyrita’s Richard Itter archive. To be honest the sound – especially for 1980 – is a little crude with what seems to be quite significant carrier wave or tape hiss. The soundstage is not especially deep or detailed and the performances often reflect that these are truly the first time anybody has encountered this music. In the liner there is a part of an interview Simpson gave to Lewis Foreman just after the premiere of the 6th Symphony that can be heard here. The liner offers a shortened extract from the interview – below is a more extended part of that interview, all of which can (and should!) be read here courtesy of the Robert Simpson Society Website.

RS: Orchestral works hardly ever get enough rehearsal, certainly not the proper kind of rehearsal. The usual kind of thing that happens if you have a new symphony ... the last one of mine that was performed for instance – the orchestra saw it for the first time the day before the concert. They read it marvellously well actually. It really was an astonishing achievement in the time, but it still wasn’t my symphony. I don’t really think how it can be — there’s no time for anybody to get inside it, or get the feel of it. Just hanging on for grim death and reading and counting like mad and keeping in or avoiding getting out. And the conductor beating as clearly as he can and helping everybody.
LF: Does it affect the tempo? Especially in fast passages?
RS: Of course. It tends to get cautious. It either gets cautious or it goes too fast because they think they can get over it better that way. Sometimes it’s easier to get over a passage by rushing than it is by playing every note clearly.
LF: That was at the Festival Hall, wasn’t it?
RS: Yes, Number 6. I make no criticism of the orchestra or the conductor. It’s just that in the time it could not be done.

I quote that at length simply because it pertains to both performances. Make no mistake – Symphony No 6 under Sir Charles Groves receives a very good “first performance” with all the caveats and compromises that Simpson refers to in the interview. First performances are bit like driving a car with one hand hovering over the handbrake. Unfamiliarity breeds the caution Simpson refers to. If something goes awry, the players simply will not know the music well enough to be able to jump back in. To avoid this, a conductor will try to keep things as simple and clear – technically and musically – as possible. So a good first performance is one that plays most of the right notes most of the time. Digging under the surface to the beating heart of a work tends to come later. What makes this performance of No.6 valuable apart from its historical/documentary status is that unusually for Simpson he revised the work post the premiere. Simpson expert Matthew Taylor is quoted in the liner that the work was greatly enhanced by these revisions. Exactly what these were or how extensive is not elaborated upon but the significance of the composer’s first thoughts is not in doubt and this recording will remain the only document of them.

Perhaps with the advantage of hindsight, the listener can hear in the playing of the London Philharmonic a certain degree of note-to-note care. Longer musical phrases and the sense of a work’s architecture that good players soon latch onto by a second or third performance is missing. Comparisons will always be made with the Hyperion performances, but in the case of this work it is obvious from the first bars that Vernon Handley and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra have had more time to be “inside” the work. This sense of growing awareness is especially apposite in the case of this work. Simpson’s handling of symphonic form was uniquely sophisticated. This thirty-three minute symphony is divided into two – roughly equal - parts. The work’s dedicatee was Ian Craft – a distinguished gynaecologist – who suggested a form suggestive of the growth of a living organism from a single cell. Simpson provided a programme note which expands on this theme to include growth, birth and development from dependency through to the final prime of life. Additionally, the predictably sophisticated Hyperion recording does allow the richness and detail of Simpson’s writing to both register but also combine. In part this is also helped by Handley’s preference for antiphonal violins which helps the ear fillet out the complexly overlapping writing. So while Simpson is clearly correct in his interview to say this performance is very good all things being equal, it is hard not to consider the Hyperion recording still the reference performance for this work.

The performance of Symphony No 5 from the LSO in 1973 conducted by the twenty-nine year old Andrew Davis is quite another matter. As any performance at any time in the work’s existence this would be of note, as the first performance it is simply remarkable. The LSO’s playing blazes with bravura energy and certainty. This was acknowledged at the time with Edward Greenfield succinctly describing it as “fearless in its physical impact”. What I find more fascinating in retrospect is to realise that this was the LSO at the peak of its famed collaboration with André Previn. But this does not sound at all like the sophisticated sleek ensemble that can be heard on so many EMI and Decca recordings from that period. This is supremely virtuosic for sure but with a ferocity and barely contained brutality that sounds quite unlike any British orchestra. All of the potential caution or percentage-playing mentioned before is wholly absent but this is a work which demands this kind of unbridled performance. Playing from the entire orchestra bristles with brilliance but the principal trumpet in particular is simply superb. Handley’s Hyperion performance is with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and it replicates the same aural sophistication of their Symphony No 6 but somehow without that in-your-face bravura of the LSO.

Curiously part of the compelling nature of the 1973 broadcast is that the sound does not dress the music up in any kind of sonic glamour. After the hushed stasis of the opening, the music erupts into a volcanic tutti of a remarkably sustained and unrelenting nature. Alongside the ferocious LSO the RPO sound almost well-mannered. This is still very very good playing indeed but without the awe-inspiring impact of the premiere performance. As a byword – the Lyrita liner is written by Jürgen Schaarwächter who is the chairman of the Robert Simpson Society. This is a useful note especially by placing the works in their historical context however it must be said that from an analytical point of view the Hyperion notes are more useful for a listener trying to plot their way through the complexities of these scores. Matthew Taylor’s note for the Hyperion No 5 in particular is a model of its kind. Taylor lays bare how the opening static chord provides the germinal material for the entire work. But it has to be said that Davis is excellent in the performance itself at leading the listener through the work. The structure of the work is again unusual; around a central almost capricious if not malicious Scherzino are a pair of slow moving Canone which are in turn framed by the outer Allegros with the work ending on the frozen chord with which it began. Although the work plays continuously across its thirty-nine minute span these sections are instantly identifiable even on a first listen. As these are live performances, there is a certain amount of audience noise including coughs and the well-deserved applause. Davis manages to hold the applause from crashing in too soon after the 5th’s ethereal conclusion, the end of No 6 is rather more obvious so the enthusiasm of the audience cannot be contained.

I imagine this review will be of interest in the main to pre-existing Simpson enthusiasts who will need little persuasion as to the stature and value of these works. As such, copies of this disc might well have already been ordered. For those yet to try the unique sound-world of Simpson I would strongly recommend that they do as this richly rewarding music. These performances reinforce the belief that Simpson was a symphonist of international stature and I suspect that this release of the premiere of Symphony No 5 might well prove to be one of the most revelatory archive/historical discs of the year.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: David McDade



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