Hyperion CDA66728 – Review by Martin Anderson

Two mighty symphonies from Britain’s mightiest symphonist. And both very different, though obviously from the same masterly pen, one whose central concern is the long-term, structural generation and dissemination of energy. Both works are masterpieces, in my view, and I think that Simpson’s Fifth is easily one of the greatest symphonies written this century – I would, for example, unhesitatingly put in on a par with two other twentieth-century Fifths, those of Sibelius and Nielsen, and somewhat higher than Shostakovich’s. You can hear something of Simpson’s symphonic ancestry in his music – chiefly Nielsen, Sibelius, something of Bruckner and something more of Beethoven, the composer he esteems above all others – but his language is very much his own. And it’s user-friendly but he makes you works for that release of breath after the double-barline.

Robert Simpson’s Third Symphony dates from 1962. It was written to a commission from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and the dedicatee is Havergal Brian, for the redioscovery of whose music Simpson, then a producer at the BBC, had been working tirelessly since he had chanced across it eight years previously. The work falls into two movements of around a quarter-of-an-hour apiece. Simpson’s chief generative device for large-scale tension is a Nielsen-inspired rivality between two tonal areas. In his First Symphony, once recorded by Sir Adrian Boult, the struggle was between between E flat and a finally triumphant A; the Second begins in B minor, passing through E flat and G in the ingenious second movement (a palindromic set of thirteen variations), to conclude in an emphatic B major. In the Third, in the words of Hugh Ottaway’s sleeve-notes with the work’s first recording (with Jascha Horenstein and the London Symphony Orchestra on Unicorn), “the unifying tonal contention is between B flat and C. The first movement, a sonata form, is in B flat (ultimately minor), but with a recurring pull towards C, the latter being felt as a region of promise. The second movement begins in B flat but ends in C”. But, as Simpson is fond of saying: “It doesn’t matter if you can’t tell B flat from a rissole” – you have to hear the tumultuous momentum he generates from this outwardly simple plan. On several occasions Simpson has composed music that takes as its starting point the music of other composers (the most striking examples are his Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Quartet, which are a recomposition of Beethoven’s Rasumovskys on Simpson’s own terms, the result being as rewarding as a commentary on the Beethoven as it is satisfying in itself); indeed, the ever-articulate notes by Matthew Taylor (himself a young composer of increasingly impressive symphonies) suggests a Beethovenian model behind the first movement of this symphony. With the second movement the underlying inspiration was the music of nature itself: I recall hearing Simpson explain in a radio broadcast how he threw open the bedroom window of his house, deep in the English countryside, as dawn was breaking and was fascinated by the growing energy expressed in the dawn chorus. Likewise Simpson’s music – though no crude piece of nature painting – grows gently into life and slowly builds up a head of energy, still marked sempre pp, that eventually cannot be repressed and bursts through the fabric in a huge rush of life that finds its release in a massive chord that sounds across the orchestra (Ottaway points out that it “is nothing other than the dominant seventh of C major – and in root position too! – yet it sounds like some dazzling new discovery”). Now spent, the energy ebbs away, and the symphony comes to a quiet halt on a bare fifth, of C and G.

It would take a monster of a work to overshadow the achievement of Simpson’s No. 3, but his Fifth is a thing of such blazing power and formal ingenuity that it takes that formidable hurdle in its stride. It dates from ten years after the Third (until his retirement from the BBC in 1980 – when he resigned from the BBC in protest against the weakening artistic standards in the organization – Simpson spent more time working for other composers’ music than composing his own), and was first performed in 1973 by the London Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Davis. For a piece with such a visceral impact (and it uses the largest orchestra Simpson has yet required), it has had a pretty thin history. After the premiere it was next performed in Moravia in (I think) 1977 under a conductor called (again, if my memory serves me right) Vladimir Nohejl, to whom I wrote to ask for further details but got no reply; then Davis came to the rescue again with a towering performance, again with the LSO, in 1982. James Blair then presented it with the Young Musicians’ Symphony Orchestra, still in London, in 1989, and in 1990 Davis once more did, this time at the Proms. But until this recording Simpson Five had been nowhere near a recording studio, which means that, broadcasts apart, it has been heard by a few thousand people, although its stature is that of one of the marking works of our time. Now at last, as part of Vernon Handley’s sterling series of Simpson Symphonies, itself a major strand in Hyperion’s project to record all of Simpson’s major works, it will be able to reach the audience it deserves.

The structure is unique, though it too is based on tonal tension: in five linked sections, the Symphony opens with a single, understated chord built up of three tenths, dovetailed together and spread out over five octaves. This chord is to play a vital role in what is to come. Suddenly a blast of intemperate energy rips through the quiet, and the first of Simpson’s Allegri is underway, the development leading to a vigorous fugato that is unexpectedly cut off at its climax to reveal – the chord again, immobile, unmoved. There then begins a canon, each entry beginning on a descending note of the chord until Simpson has entirely unravelled it. Now comes the central movement, which contains perhaps the catchiest music Simpson has ever written: it’s a brief but gorgeously bad-tempered Scherzino, in the unlikely time-signature of 15/8 (the rhythm breaks down into 6+6+3), which simply builds up to a climax and then retreats. Canone 2 now begins to repeat what Canone 1 did, only in reverse, starting with the lowest note of the chord and gradually re-assembling it. When the procedure is complete, the Finale (Molto allegro e con fuoco), an expansion of the music of the opening movement, erupts into one of the most sheerly exciting explosions of energy in the entire symphonic repertoire that winds up into a massive coda playing ferociously with the tonal tensions so far generated in the music’s progress, not least through intermittent reference to the chord, cresting again and again in a series of jagged climaxes, each fiercer than its predecessor until the music reaches a cataclysmic chord, sffff, so powerful you think the fabric has to give. And it does: the music is suddenly silenced – and there stands the chord, ppp, icy in the expectation of triumph. Blasts from wind and brass fails to regenerate the lost momentum, but the chord is unmoved. The timpani – placed on either side of the orchestra – weigh in with an urgent salvo. The chord waits. The timpani, now more distant, in retreat, throw a parting gesture. A last futile gesture from the orchestra and all force is spent. The chord, cold and sphinx-like in victory, now indulges in the ultimate of ironies: note by note, from the bottom upwards, it extinguishes itself, each sound disappearing until only the violins are left, orbiting on a high C. Then that too goes, and there is silence, one of the most telling silences in all music.

At this point, in the work’s shamefully brief concert-life, the audience normally explodes into the kind of roaring applause provoked by the relief of surviving a harrowing experience. Indeed, although the trappings of Simpson’s music simply easily enough assimilated, this is a work that asks a tremendous amount of its listeners – I left the hall after Davis’ 1982 performance, my first encounter with the piece, with shoulders so stiff with the tension of it all that they hurt for days. And though Handley takes the Finale of No. 5 more broadly than Davis did then, the effect is similarly demanding even when you are listening at home. Indeed, throughout his series Handley has been finding warmth and humor in Simpson’s music that have eluded earlier interpreters. His Third Symphony is that bit less monumental than Horenstein’s reading, but bubbling with incidental detail and a big-hearted swing that Horenstein sacrificed to dramatic edge. They are both magnificent performances in their different ways; Horenstein made a brief appearance on a Unicorn-Kanchana CD, now deleted, which will allow a fascinating comparison if you can find it in the second-hand shops. And in No. 5 Handley has the field to himself, for a performance that can only win eager converts to this towering edifice of a symphony. If you have read this far, you won’t need me to add that this is a mandatory purchase.

If you get the Simpson bug, you may be interested to know that there is a Robert Simpson Society; it can be contacted c/o Brian Duke, 24 Regent’s Close, Fleet, Aldershot, Hampshire GU13 9NS, England. It has been actively involved with Hyperion’s series of recordings, and must be rejoicing at a job well done. But Simpson’s music has such a sheerly physical impact that it has to be heard in the hall. If these recordings interest conductors, string quartets (I am told that Simpson is just starting No. 16), and other musicians in performing Simpson’s music in front of living, listening audiences, they will be doing sterling work. Still, nemo propheta in patria sua: why Vernon Handley has not been awarded a knighthood for his work on behalf of British music is as inexplicable as the neglect – until recently – of Simpson’s prodigious symphonic corpus.

Martin Anderson
Fanfare Magazine