Robert Simpson’s Symphonies

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SIMPSON: Symphonies Nos. 51 & 62 / 1London Symphony Orch., Andrew Davis, cond (live: London, May 3, 1973); 2London Philharmonic Orch., Charles Groves, cond (live: London, April 8, 1980) / Lyrita SRCD.389

The good news about this CD is that it has exposed me to another excellent composer whose work I did not previously know. The bad news is that, with my record collection overflowing its banks, I need to add another record to it like I need a hole in the head. But I’ll do it anyway, because Robert Simpson (1921-1997) was one helluva composer.

Knowing the Brits’ penchant for warm, romantic-style music, I guess I was expecting something in that vein, and the very soft opening of the Fifth Symphony, though sounding a bit mysterious and ominous, did not prepare me for the orchestral explosion (there’s no other word for it) which ensued. Nor is this explosion just inserted for shock effect: it is the harbinger of some extraordinary themes and variants, though I sill insist that much of this movement sounds more Slavic or German than British. Reading the liner notes, it did not surprise me that he was a friend of Havergal Brian, whose music also sounds mostly non-British in nature. The difference is that most of Brian’s symphonies (from No. 4 onward) became more and more cerebral while Simpson’s simply overflow with seething passion.

Although divided into five numbered sections, this symphony is essentially in one continuous movement. At no point in its 39-minute duration does one feel bored or restless listening to it. Even the soft second section (“Comodo e tranquillo”) has a feeling of tension despite its slow pace and very sparse orchestration (mostly just the flute, and then an oboe, then a clarinet, playing above sustained chords by the basses and possibly also the cellos). In the third section, marked “Molto vivace,” the volume slowly increases until we are caught in a veritable web of snarling brass making fair to overtake the staunch little flute which just keeps on going its own way. In the next section, “Canzone 2: Adagio,” the violas play a strange but lyrical melody against rhythmic repeated notes on the basses, but if one follows the long arc of the music and doesn’t just concentrate on the component parts, his sense of construction is as remarkable as his fiery and unexpected changes of mood and turns of phrase. In short, Simpson was a creator, someone who tempered his inspiration with a strong sense of musical unity, and as such commands our attention even today. Even the little rocking motion he employs at one point in the Finale is integrated not only rhythmically but thematically into the surrounding material; it’s unexpected and surprising, but he almost makes it sound as if it were an inevitable part of the composition, and he then re-uses it later in the movement to variations on that short motif.

The Sixth Symphony is divided into two parts, the first lasting roughly 15 minutes and the second almost 18. This, like Beethoven’s Sixth, opens more lyrically than the Fifth, although some edgy brass chords come and go, letting you know that something eventful is on the horizon. At 1:53, Simpson begins a somewhat quirky tune with a quirky rhythm, and things begin to move. Here the basses do not remain static but play a counter-figure of their own against the upper-range activity of the strings and brass. The liner notes explain that the basic idea of the symphony, proposed by gynecologist Ian Croft, was to write a symphony that simulated the growth of a living creature from a fertilized germ, and Simpson took this to heart. Of course, music only really expresses things in musical terms, no matter how pictorial that music might be, but it’s an interesting concept to keep in mind as you listen. There are all sorts of little things going on in the inner voices throughout this symphony, and here Simpson again holds your attention without being as flashy or as overt as in the Fifth. By the mid-point in the first section, things are quite lively indeed but, except for the spiky harmonies, not really very menacing.

As we move into the second part, the music becomes calmer. Apparently our living creature has found sustenance and perhaps a mate and thus sounds quite content with life. Simpson keeps on inventing, developing and switching themes and motifs as the work continues; he has a large fund of ideas, they’re all good, and somehow he makes them work together. At the 11;10 mark in this second section, for instance, he uses blocks of sound and strongly syncopated rhythms together, and a bit later on the tempo doubles as he works his theme out. Things become more and more hectic as our living creature, apparently pissed off at the world, seems to be going on a bit of a rampage.

This is utterly fascinating music, a must for those who enjoy modern symphonies. Robert Simpson clearly needs to be rediscovered and played more often.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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