Hyperion CDA66827 – Review by Martin Anderson

This disc, the (I think) sixteenth in Hyperion’s epic traversal of the music of Robert Simpson, contains all of his music for solo piano to date (there is also a powerful Sonata for Two Pianos); in a touching gesture, it was sponsored by two individual members of the Robert Simpson Society, Jim and Joyce Pattison, to commemorate the composer’s seventy-fifth birthday on 2 March this year.

Simpson is not a natural composer for the piano; indeed, I once heard him, at a talk he gave in London a few years ago, describe his piano-playing as only sufficient to “barge” (I think that was the word he used) his way through a Schubert sonata. Perhaps as a result, the music is so elemental that it seems there is no compromise with anything as irrelevant as mere piano technique. This is evident as early as the three-movement Sonata he composed in 1946, one of his first major works and the earliest to be published: the music often sounds as if it only just tolerates its medium, as if at the slightest excuse it would throw off this mere trapping and evolve into something larger. Lionel Pike’s perceptive notes point out that, although this Sonata predates Simpson’s revelatory discovery of Nielsen, it already shows his interest in the large-scale organisation of tonality that took off with a vengeance once Simpson had had time to assimilate the impact of Nielsen. And for someone who didn’t then know Nielsen, the closeness of the final pages of the Sonata to the style of the most colossal of Nielsen’s piano pieces (the Chaconne, for example) is quite astonishing – hardly surprising that Simpson reacted so strongly to Nielsen: he was already evolving on similar lines.

The style is also very close to that of the piano sonatas of Harold Truscott, who first performed the Sonata, in 1947, in London: clearly tonal but angular, its often intemperate power animated by a no-nonsense counterpoint that can be wonderfully invigorating. (When, oh, when, is Altarus going to re-release on CD some of the LP recordings that Peter Jacobs made of several Truscott piano sonatas in the mid-eighties?) Truscott and Simpson were closely involved in the Exploratory Concert Society in London in the years after the Second World War, and Truscott gave the premieres of his own First and Second Sonatas there, in 1947 and 1948 respectively, so Simpson made well have absorbed something from his colleague-in-arms. Truscott was also deeply involved in the origins of the Variations and Finale on a Theme of Haydn (1948), of which he was the dedicatee: he had a legendary standing as a sight-reader, and Simpson wrote elsewhere that the the Variations and Finale had the “unworthy and unsuccessful” aim to trying to catch Truscott out. Certainly, there are tricks and twists aplenty and lots of grunty humor in the music; and a further piece of conjuring: the Haydn theme that Simpson chose is palindromic, and each of his own variations (there are twelve) are likewise back-to-front from their central point. (Simpson was to return to this Haydn theme for his monumental Ninth String Quartet, which comprises no fewer than thirty-two variations and a fugue on it; the quartet incorporates some of the earlier piano variations). Pike states that the premiere was given by Lamar Crowson in 1955 but he doesn’t mention any of the activities of the Exploratory Concert Society where it seems likely that composer and pianist would have seen to a public performance; certainly, since Simpson said that his attempt to trip up Truscott’s sight-reading was unsuccessful, Truscott must have played it somewhere. I should have thought to put that question to the composer, since I ’phoned him up to ask him a question about the Variations: one of them was strikingly close to a piece of Alkan’s; was that an acknowledgement of Truscott’s playing Alkan in the Society’s concert? No, said Dr Simpson, just coincidence.

Before the main item in Raymond Clarke’s recital, the Variations and Finale on a Theme of Beethoven from 1990, he inserts the brief Michael Tippett, His Mystery, a one-and-half-minute miniature published in 1985. Mysterious it is, feeling its way through space in search of a tonality – only just long enough for Simpson to grin enigmatically at the listener before he disappears.

Simpson’s Beethoven Variations, composed especially for Raymond Clarke, a pianist he much admires, are based on a G minor bagatelle, WoO61a, written in 1825. There are twenty-three variations, falling into groups that shadow the movements of a sonata, the first eleven a first movement, the twelfth to twenty-first an electrifying scherzo, and the last two a slow finale, reminiscent of the Diabelli Variations (and it was Simpson, in a radio talk, who first – as far as I know – pointed out that the Diabellis are quietly continued in Op. 111, a performance of which by Clarke impressed Simpson enough for him to compose these variations). The finale begins with what Pike calls “a grotesque fugue” leading to a sonata-like finale. On the whole, the piano writing is much barer than the earlier works, as if the composer had stripped away anything that wasn’t essential, but since this is Simpson a sense of power, of latent enegy, is never far, even when the music appears at its calmest.

Once again in this Simpson series, Hyperion have struck gold. The music, of course, is first-rate; Lionel Pike’s notes are very good at guiding the listener’s through the structural complexities of Simpson’s thinking; the sound is good (perhaps just a bit too much space around the piano). And last but not etc., Raymond Clarke’s playing is very fine indeed. It’s clean, powerful, sprung with the muscular tension that Simpson’s music demands. Clarke has a reputation as a formidable recitalist: as well as more mainstream material like the Prokofiev Sonatas, he will happily turn to music by Tippett, Boulez, Hoddinott, Panufnik to animate his recitals, with the result that a Clarke concert in London is often full of other musicians drawn in by the quality of his programs. And no respectable CD collection ought to be without his recording of Ronald Stevenson’s monumental Passacaglia on DSCH (Marco Polo 8.2235450. I imagine Hyperion have made sure they sign him up for their recording of the Simpson Piano Concerto, which they will be getting round to one of these days. Strangely enough, as far as I am aware this is only Clarke’s second CD after the Stevenson, so if Hyperion have their wits about them, they might ask him to hang around and turn out a few more.

Obviously, a very strong recommendation. And when’s the next one?

Martin Anderson
Fanfare Magazine – 1996