Hyperion CDA66890 – Review by Martin Anderson

Vernon Handley’s ongoing series of the Symphonies of Robert Simpson (b. 1921) is one of the most valuable things in the current catalog of British music. Now Handley unites Simpson’s first acknowledged symphony, from 1951, with No. 8 from thirty years later.

What astonishes about Simpson’s First Symphony is the maturity of the musical language, the complete command of both form and content (Simpson was thirty when he composed it). The certainty of direction, the confidence of manner that is a hallmark of the later works was there from the beginning. In the event, Simpson had already cut his teeth in private: “No. 1” the fifth symphony he composed: in his late teens and twenties he wrote four of them (one of which, surprisingly for this master of the structural use of tonality, used serial procedures). He dumped them all, and this initiator of the great canon states clearly what kind of symphony we could expect from now on: humane but anti-emotional, ambitious without the Romantic excesses of a Mahler, accessible in language without the slightest hint of compromise. And one striking element already present here – something which, I think, has been constantly overlooked in commentary on Simpson’s music because of concentration of structural considerations – is the sheer originality of his orchestration. There’s no sense of it having been “scored” at all: the musical idea and its orchestral expression seem indivisible, even despite the sometimes abrupt changes of timbre and dynamics.

It’s nonetheless the structural ingenuity of Simpson’s Symphonies that is one of their most characteristic features. No. 1 pre-echoes the Ninth of thirty-six years later in containing a three-movement form within a single structure built over an essentially unchanging pulse – though here the central section is not a breakneck scherzo (as in No. 9) but a radiantly lyrical slow section, through which just a hint of faster music briefly surfaces and as rapidly disappears. It has become a commonplace of writing about Simpson that he picked up Nielsen’s symphonic glove, and Simpson himself has said that he had to put his First Symphony aside for ages when he first encountered Nielsen’s music: he felt that someone else had said it all already. I hardly hear the Nielsen influence at all in the first movement – it’s simply too individual for that – though it’s clear in the finale, particularly in the writing for strings and horns. And what an extraordinary mixture of symphonic purpose and a sense of rude, honest well-being the finale is. It’s difficult to believe this work didn’t make an immediate impact when it was first performed – though when one knows something of the critical scorn that such old-hat composers were suffering in the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s (tonality? how crude), it must have been all too predictable. The hallmark of a civilized society is tolerance; in music, at least, we now seem just a mite more civilized than then.

The Eighth Symphony, written in 1981, is one of Simpson’s toughest nuts. It is in four movements, joined in two units of two, the first half ending in a threatening scherzo, against which the third movement reacts in a calming elegy. That idea was suggested to Simpson at his request by his friend, the painter Anthony Dorrell, whose portrait of Simpson is reproduced on the back of the booklet. What Dorrell got was a symphonic edifice of towering strength and intemperate energy, scored for a very large orchestra (including triple woodwind, four horns, four trumpets, four trombones, two tubas and two sets of timpani). The first movement begins calmly enough but gradually builds up a furious head of energy – Simpson’s music often seems justs to grow and grow – before tumbling in on itself, out of which creeps the cackling, confident, malevolent scherzo, a thing of destructive power and frightening confidence, seven minutes of sardonic, unhurried grimness. Then it, too, spends its energies and ebbs away through the lower reaches of the orchestra. Anthony Dorrell’s request for a elegy to match the menace of the scherzo was answered only in part: there are calming string passages here, true enough, but they are interspersed with sections of Simpson at his most angular, angry brass chords stamping their way across the texture, implacable rhythms from side-drum and timpani. Finally, the calm returns to build up to one of the most astonishing movements in the symphonic literature. Simpson comments of the quarter-hour finale that “its energy has nothing to do without romantic triumph … it is simple energy, and energy can be used for good or ill.” It is dark, driving, irresistible, implacable – Simpson’s fierce humanism at its uncompromising fiercest. I attended the premiere of the work in the Royal Festival Hall, and emerging, blinking, afterwards, I bumped into John McCabe. McCabe, no mean symphonist himself, was likewise astounded, and said to me that he knew of no other composer who could generate and maintain energy on the vast scale we had just heard. Even in the inadequately prepared premiere (the Royal Danish Orchestra doing their best under Jerzy Semkow’s disinterested direction), the physical impact of such power leaves you reeling. This work needs performances. Live ones. And lots of them.

Handley’s performance is a tour-de-force, the energy harnessed and directed to maximum effect. And although the Royal Philharmonic play with patent commitment, there are one or two rough edges to the playing, the odd imprecise ensemble here and there – but then, as a letter from Ted Perry, supremo of Hyperion, in a recent issue of Gramophone revealed, the publishers had failed to take account of the composer’s revisions, and much time was lost at the sessions because score and parts didn’t tally. It’s still an extraordinary performance of one of the most remarkable symphonies of the past half-century. The notes are, as usual, by Matthew Taylor (another fine composer) and, again as usual, effortlessly blend a plain-man’s guide to the music with insights into its nature.

That letter from Ted Perry, by the way, also admitted that Hyperion’s Simpson project was many thousands of pounds in the red (£23,000? I forget the figure, and I don’t have the requisite copy of the magazine by me). In that case, Hyperion’s dogged continuation of these recordings is a reason for the highest praise. If artistic merit guaranteed commercial reward, Hyperion would be rolling in it: there are now seventeen CDs in this series. An act of faith on this scale deserves recognition, and I urge you at the very least to explore this barnstormer of a release. For all the friendliness of No. 1, the Eighth is not music that comes to meet you, but it amply rewards concentration and effort – all great music does. And if it all sounds a bit daunting, try an easier way in: the Third and Fifth Symphonies on CDA66728. The Fifth is a towering masterpiece, a thing of ceaseless energy and strength. And I’m pretty certain you’ll be back for more.

Martin Anderson
Fanfare Magazine