Hyperion CDA66503 – Review by Stephen Johnson

At first glance the Twelfth Quartet looks like familiar territory: a slow fugal movement rising from absorbing quiet to an impassioned climax and falling back to near-stillness; after this an immense scherzo, at the same time echoing and transforming Beethovenian dance-rhythms. In fact the musical voyage is quite different from anything else in Simpson, and no matter how often you hear it, there are always new relationships to be discovered – like the way the Puckish repeated viola figure towards the end of scherzo finale mimics the contour of the first movement’s opening phrase.

By now the Coull Quartet have had plenty of time to get acquainted with Simpson’s musical language – and it shows: few first recordings of music by a living composer can have sounded as authoritative as these. Roger Bigley – the second viola in the Quintet – may be a relative newcomer, but he seems to fit as effortlessly as the fifth finger in a well-worn glove. The Quintet does tread conspicuously new ground, not just in the way Simpson exploits the richer, fuller quintet sound, but in the way he plays with our expectations: at first the opening idea pretends it’s a fugue subject, but each time the final note is held so that a big chord in fifths is built up; then as the andante grows more eloquent there’s a sudden, short glimpse of something new – a high, dancing allegro. Gradually these glimpses get bigger, until eventually the allegro tempo takes over; and then the process is reversed, with the former meditative andante reintroduced by degrees and consolidated in the coda. The players seem to have it all in their grasp, and the recordings are atmospheric and clear, if just a little over-bright in high fortissimos.

Stephen Johnson
Gramophone, July 1992