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CD Review

Robert Simpson

  • Quintet for Clarinet & Strings (1968)
  • String Quartet #13 (1989)
  • String Quintet #2 (1991-94)
Delmé String Quartet
Thea King, clarinet
Christopher van Kampen, cello
Hyperion CDA66905 63:38
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Transformation and transcendence.

Most of Simpson's reputation rests on (in my opinion) peripheral pursuits. An early champion of both Nielsen and Mahler, on whose behalf he wrangled with his superiors at the BBC for performances and air time, he wrote the first major English study of the Dane, which helped to revive Nielsen's reputation outside Denmark. Indeed, he wrote on musical subjects with laser keenness. He got up performances of Mahler symphonies when many regarded them as long-winded bores. Vaughan Williams' notorious characterization of Mahler – "a tolerable imitation of a composer" – pretty much reflected the critical consensus. He single-handedly resurrected Havergal Brian's work and inspired the composer to a flood of late symphonies, each a major contribution to the canon. Despite the historical importance of this work, I still contend that it stands outside Simpson's main achievement: a magnificent series of symphonies and chamber music, the genres on which he concentrated. Though t hey differ greatly in outlook and effect, Simpson, I believe, stands at least with Shostakovich in these areas.

As a young composer, Simpson (1921-1997) studied dodecaphonic serialism but decided he didn't care for it. The transformations afforded by tonality exerted a powerful attraction on him. Nevertheless, serialism – in particular, Schoenberg's piano concerto – did affect his compositional outlook, and not just in reaction. One finds the same kind of micro-managing focus in a Simpson work as one finds in Boulez or Babbitt. For this reason, some call him an "intellectual" composer, in the sense that they mistake him as all head and no heart (by the way, they're also wrong about Boulez and Babbitt). Simpson's music is about as unemotional as Beethoven's or Brahms', to name just two of his heroes, and one sees the same drive toward "objective" classicism in all three composers. He seldom wears his heart on his sleeve, however, and he always builds strongly and tightly. It may be that the current cultural climate – both with its insistence that art be immediately apprehensi ble to the Generally Intelligent Person and with its allergy to subtler emotional states – has little room for Simpson. Simpson – like Brahms, late Beethoven, and Mahler – takes work. Unlike Brahms and Mahler, however, Simpson gives you few confectionary concessions. Color, as in Brahms, supports the ideas, rather than calls attention to itself, emotional extremes are rare, and there are few hummable tunes. In fact, in all the Simpson I've heard, I can't think of any, although I can recall many memorable ideas. Simpson, above all, takes you on a journey. You follow a thread of music through the woods. Enjoyment, for me, depends largely on my ability to keep my focus on what the composer puts before me.

If there's better chamber music than Robert Simpson's, I don't know it. You have to start talking about some very big names indeed to give someone an idea of its craft and its effect. The Clarinet Quintet has Brahms as its immediate inspiration, but as far as I can tell, it's not particularly Brahmsian. Beethoven and Mahler, without imitation, seem to me the stronger presences. The work runs to more than half an hour in five movements, played without a break. Consequently, we get the formal classicism of individual movements (sonata-allegro, scherzo, slow movement, etc.) and a fantasia quality to the whole. As Beethoven did in the fourth piano concerto, Simpson builds the entire work from the material of the opening measures and varies it throughout, so that while the music swiftly changes moods, it still sounds unified. There's an outstanding moment at the end, when the opening chromatic material transforms into something almost naïvely diatonic – a tip of the hat to Mahler at his sophisticated folksiest. I could go on about various neat manipulations, but – as with something like Beethoven's Eroica – it strikes me as beside the point. The richness, the adult, emotional sensibility of the piece matter more. A very great work indeed.

The String Quartet #13 (Simpson completed fifteen in all) runs to four movements, played without a break, with ideas in earlier movements showing up again in later ones. The liner notes claim that all the material, as in the Clarinet Quintet, comes from the introduction to the first movement, a Ländler idea straight out of Mahler. If the writer is correct, many of these variant recurrences have flown right past my ears. To me, Simpson writes a little looser than in the Clarinet Quintet. The slow second movement to me shows almost no relationship to the first. However, the scherzo third movement reprises the material of the first as if on speed, and the slow finale uses ideas found throughout. Furthermore, transitions between movements come off as abrupt or non-existent. For a Simpson quartet, it's pretty economical, at eighteen minutes, practically "unbuttoned." But the last pages, despite their brevity, lend weight to the entire work. To some exten t, it's a rhetorical movement that one finds in Holst's Planets, where "Neptune" suddenly lifts the entire work into another realm – from the largely human, to the other-worldly – although in Simpson this sort of transcendence plays out on a much smaller scale.

In one movement of about fifteen minutes, Simpson's String Quintet #2 (string quartet plus extra cello) comes from 1994 – the last work he completed. The composer, late in life, suffered a stroke that partially paralyzed him and left him in near-constant pain. This slowed his output, as you can tell from the dates of composition, although it never stopped his writing altogether. The work proceeds in sections, alternating between two tempos: a moderately slow one and an allegro. Four slow sections enclose three allegros, with the climax of the work at the third allegro. Everything in the piece derives from the opening measures: a duet for the two cellos. The idea, like most of Simpson, you can't call hummable, but you do remember it. The line has a profile distinguished largely by perfect fifths and augmented fourths (tritones), with a couple of rhythmic twitches that become increasingly important as the piece proceeds. The fact that you can clearly follo w the transformations of these ideas puts the quintet very close to a set of symphonic variations, a form which attracted Simpson more than once. The mood of the piece alternates with the tempi. I hear it as despair mixed with anger. Simpson, particularly in the last pages of his works, usually saves the greatest rhetorical weight for his final pages – yet another link to Beethoven, Mahler, and Bruckner. Often a transcendent spiritual radiance results, one source for the importance most Simpsonites attach to his music. I think it worth marking Simpson as one of the few modern composers who regularly and convincingly brings off this sort of thing. It's not a matter merely of volume or of brass in chorale. Simpson does this in many different ways. Here, however, while the end does bear the weight of the work, everything tends to intensify. The work becomes bleaker and angrier as it progresses, with an ending somewhere near the Slough of Despond.

The Delmé Quartet and their friends are old hands at Simpson's music. None of these pieces are easy, technically or emotionally. They might as well have played three late Beethovens or three Bartóks. Simpson demands that level of commitment. Fortunately, he gets it. Fortunately, his players "get it" as well. They sound as if they've known these works for twenty years. Hyperion engineers provide them with a sonic stage worthy of their performance: one which never calls attention to itself but allows both the clarity and warmth of the playing through. I recommend this disc without reservation: superb music, superbly done.

Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz