Hyperion CDA66376 – Review by David Fanning

The steady flow of Hyperion issues devoted to the music of Robert Simpson continues. Indeed the insert-notes to this latest CD announce “a series comprising the complete string quartets, symphonies and other music”. As with the music itself, it may be a while before this initiative receives its due, for the quartets in particular demand close and patient listening – but once they find their way in, their penetration is deep, and in the long run this will surely come to be regarded as one of the most significant recording projects of the day.
So far the series has concentrated on comparatively recent works. The Third Quartet is a reminder that Simpson’s mastery of the medium dates back more than 35 years – the first three quartets are in effect a trilogy, composed in successive years from 1952-4. The style leans a little further towards Bartok than does the later Simpson, though that shouldn’t be too surprising, given that both composers take Beethoven as their starting-point for quartet composition. Behind the second idea of Simpson’s fast second movement there is the smiling melodic grace of Nielsen – less surprising still. But the ebb and flow of energy is thoroughly individual, and mastery is not too strong a word for the free-wheeling momentum over the last three and a half minutes or so of the work – rather like the final pages of Beethoven’s Third Razumovsky Quartet, in fact.

As it happens, it is Simpson’s second trilogy of quartets, Nos. 4 to 6 from 1973-5, which con sciously shadows Beethoven’s op. 59, and No. 6 (1975) is the companion piece to the Third Razumovsky – Simpson’s commitment to restoring the momentum of Viennese classical music has not wavered over the years. What he has done in the Sixth Quartet is to emulate Beethoven’s broad structural tensions and proportions, sometimes using rather similar thematic ideas, sometimesjust oblique references, and sometimes ideas that would not be thought related at all had the modelling process not been declared. In the case of the finale, Beethoven’s metre, tempo and opening fugal texture are all retained, but many other details reflect the independent life that has animated Simpson’s preceding movements (especially details of harmony). In the first movement the metre itself is changed (fast quadruple becomes very fast triple), and the innocent ear would probably plump for Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as a more likely influence than any of the quartets. Beethoven’s neo-classical third movement is recast as a neo-baroque canon.

The most challenging task of all must surely have been the slow movement, where Beethoven is at his most private and exploratory. Here the recreation of mood is altogether extraordinary, and the do/ce theme around 3’20” is especially haunting (to my ears it has something of the visionary Tippett about it). The Delmé Quartet play with exemplary clarity and a consistent appreciation of the direction of musical thought. The recording too is clean and well balanced. As so often with relatively unfamiliar chamber music, I found it particularly rewarding to listen with headphones.

In the early 1970s Simpson referred to Beethoven’s string trios as a “balancing trick”, after which “more purposeful journeys took over [for which] four wheels were more comfortable than three”. Not one to be hidebound by his own prescriptions, Simpson has none the less produced a trio which works superbly “against the odds”. His own balancing trick involves anomalies in structural proportion – the Prelude is cut off in its prime, before the problem of textural resourcefulness has had time to present itself; then a reflective and long-drawn adagio moves in the shadow of that unresolved tension, until the expectation of some kind of synthesis is so strong that the fugal finale can burst in with total spontaneity. I think it will be some time yet before J feel entirely at home in this intriguing design, but there are so many strong ideas, and the performance is so confident in its turn, that the prospect of further acquaintance is a wholly delightful one.

David J. Fanning
Gramophone, July 1990