Hyperion CDA66905 – Review by David Fanning

Here is yet another invigorating and thought-provoking disc in Hyperion’s invaluable Simpson cycle. It’s difficult to avoid the familiar adjectives, and I apologize ill seem to be running out of fresh ways to describe my enjoyment of this music. The enjoyment itself remains as fresh as ever.

As with the Horn Trio and Quartet and the Quintet for clarinet, bass clarinet and string trio (Hyperion, 12/94), the Clarinet Quintet of 1968 treats the wind partner as an equal of the strings, eschewing temptations to add soloistic flourishes or idiomatic touches of colour. For some, that probably makes the music no more than monochrome; for me it makes the linear and contrapuntal inventiveness all the more remarkable and absorbing. Like late Beethoven, Simpson seems to begin by charting a realm just out of emotional reach yet somehow crucial to one’s psychic well-being. The mental energy gained then spills over into actual fast music, even into an engaging jigginess. Some of the ideas are close to the Third Symphony (Hyperion, 2/95), and like that masterpiece the Quintet feels as though it could go on much longer than its actual 31 minutes without the inventive resources drying up. The rarefied conclusion is all the more moving for its steadiness of gaze.

The Thirteenth Quartet (1989) retains many familiar Simpson hallmarks. It opens with a sinewy, deceptively triadic theme which soon gives way to spidery, triplety counterpoint. But the later Simpson proceeds more by suggestion than statement, or so it seems to me. It is all very ascetic and self-denying and the second and fourth movements go into an interior, attenuated world in which I’ve yet to find myself entirely at home. I still love the way Simpson listens to the registral spaces available to him, and I love the way the Delmé explore them too.
The even more recent String Quintet No. 2, whose Cheltenham premiere I attended, keeps its cards just as close to its chest. Again the design alternates austere, lyrical music with a knotty Allegro, initially short-lived but gradually expanding, while the slower sections remain more or less constant in duration. The impression is less of conflict and resolution than of a stand-off between the two tempo-types, eyeing one another in mutual suspicion; the conclusion is bleak-Sibelian, the closest I can remember a Simpson ending ever coming to actual despondency. If I say that the piece feels much longer than its 14-and-a-half minutes, I mean that as a tribute to its power of suggestion.

The Delmé are longstanding Simpson advocates and they seem to me to have the ideal sound for him – crystalline, alert and focused, as though beyond obvious human expressiveness in a realm of higher wisdom. The same goes for their admirable partners, Thea King and Christopher van Kampen. This may be one of the less immediately accessible Simpson programmes, but it is still richly rewarding.

David J. Fanning
Gramophone, October 1997