String Quartet Nos 14 and 15; Quintet for clarinets and 3 basses or string trio
Hyperion CDA66626 – Review by David Fanning
A wiry fugue subject, and off we go – yet another deeply impressive quartet from Robert Simpson, giving the impression that he only has to reach Out and a vein of uniquely invigorating music is there for the tapping. In his insert-note Matthew Taylor suggests that this Fourteenth Quartet “perhaps provides an ideal introduction for those still unfamiliar with his music”. I would agree were it not for the austere slow movement – nine minutes of contemplative blankness is going to take some patient assimilation – and I did catch myself wishing that the finale, wonderfully gritty though it is, would once in a while throw off its contrapuntal obligations and sing or dance a little. But this remains a richly rewarding experience.
The Quintet is a re-scoring of a piece originally written for clarinet, bass clarinet and three double basses. Now with the string parts laid out for conventional string trio the work is characteristically fibrous and, in the middle movement, furious. Quite why the clarinets are needed at all, however, remains a mystery to me – none of their colouristic resources is brought to bear, and I cannot see that the piece would come Out much different as a straight string quintet.
The Fifteenth Quartet (1991) once again has an intense concentration, like sunlight refracted through a magnifying glass until the object focused on catches fire. Like the other works recorded here it is delivered with verve and intensity by the Eirebased Vanbrugh Quartet and superbly recorded by Hyperion. Severo is the rather unnecessary marking for the middle movement of this work. Severity is of course a Simpson speciality; and if you have already discovered the invigoration to which that severity leads, you will not want to miss this disc. All the same, I would not make it my starting-point. For that, I would still recommend the Seventh and Eighth Quartets (Hyperion, 2/90).
David J. Fanning
Gramophone, July 1993