Unicorn UNS234 – Review by Robert Layton

Two of Robert Simpson’s symphonies have been recorded, the Third and most recent of them on Unicorn, and Decca have recently given us his Canzona for brass. But this is the first record of any of his chamber music, a field in which his contribution is every bit as impressive and, I believe, important. The disc couples the recent Quintet for clarinet and strings (1968) with the First Quartet (1951–52), the first of three written during the first half of the 1950s, and this quartet is dedicated to Georges Enesco of whom Simpson is a great admirer. There are two movements, the second being a set of variations on a palindrome, a theme so constructed that it sounds the same played back-to-front. The problems posed by writing in this particular discipline seem to have fascinated him at this time: there is the set of piano variations on a theme of Haydn, based on the palindromic minuet of the Symphony No. 47 in G, and the central and remarkable slow movement of the Second Symphony (1956). But I don’t want to dwell on the ingenuity of the music or the concept of ‘progressive tonality’ which informs the quartet. Though these matters are not without their interest, they are not the primary concern of the listener. Simpson is one of the few composers of the present day to have responded creatively to late Beethoven (Michael Tippett is another) so that although the world of feeling his music encompasses may be complex, his language retains a basic simplicity of utterance. His is not music in which beauty of incident is cultivated as a desirable end but rather it is the continuity of the musical argument that is crucial; and because his priorities are right, Simpson more often than not succeeds in getting both. The first movement reflects also the impact of Nielsen on his musical personality (he was engaged on his study of the composer at about this time), though having got to know the work very well over the years, it strikes me that the influence resides in the shallows and on the surface rather than in the deeper flow of the music. It is a strong work whose musical rewards are lasting.

The Clarinet Quintet is a longer work (it lasts almost thirty-four minutes) and is in one continuous movement which falls into five sections. It is a work of very considerable substance and achievement and shows him at his most searching. The contemplative opening has an impressive serenity and throughout this thoughtful, thought-provoking work, there is a powerful musical impulse. The language is no less accessible than that of the quartets but the demands placed on it are sterner and the thinking runs deeper. Bernard Walton and the Aeolian Quartet play with genuine commitment and sensitivity. There are one or two moments in the quartet where intonation is less than true but this is of little account given the sympathetic advocacy and feeling they bring to it. The recordings have wide dynamic range, clarity of definition and presence. Strongly recommended.

Robert Layton
Gramophone, August 1971