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Nicholas SIMPSON (b.1958)
Remembered Music
String Quartet in G minor (2013) [23:33]
Remembered Music for soprano solo and string quartet (1988) [5:54]
String Quartet in C (1994) [23:00]
Charlotte Trepess (soprano)
Zelkova Quartet
rec. 2018, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK
STONE RECORDS 5060192780871 [52:27]

Remembered Music is a disc of chamber music by Nicholas Simpson, a one-time pupil of John Tavener (1944-2013). He was born in Manchester and studied (at Nottingham University) and practised law (in London). After a spell playing guitar in rock bands he moved to studies at Trinity College of Music. There he won the Chappell Prize for composition and the Ricordi for conducting. His worklist includes three very substantial symphonies, a piano concerto, chamber music and an oratorio, Recreation. Going by title alone (admittedly chancy) Simpson also has a well-tuned sense of humour. I have not heard them but the following promise well: orchestral works: Blighty, Ilkley Moor Sans Chapeau and Bachianas Mancuniensis. There is a piano solo called Dropping Anka and Four Reasons Why Jazz is Rubbish for wind quintet. He is currently work away at an opera on Jim Crace’s 1995 Booker-shortlisted novel Quarantine. Simpson is not a complete neophyte when it comes to recordings. His clarinet quartet Mardale Changes was issued by Delphian in an anthology project. This work refers to the bells heard from the now flooded and sunken Mardale Church.

These world-premičre recordings are given with impressive skill and concentration by the Zelkova String Quartet. They are very much a family affair. The quartet is named after the Zelkova tree. Simpson’s two string quartets - each in three movements - lie almost two decades apart. They are not numbered; not yet. The character adopted by the composer or which has seized his creative imagination is deadly serious. Serious, yes, but frankly tonal and often melodic - witness the middle movement of the 1994 Quartet. At times he had me thinking of another Simpson: Robert. This is especially in relation to the older composer’s quartets 4-6 which are modelled after the Beethoven Rasumovsky quartets. Another composer evoked was Tippett but not the dense lyricism of the Tippett of the 1930s. My thoughts turned to two works where, in Tippett’s later years, he struck out in new directions and was gripped by an over-weaning lyrical impulse: Rose Lake and the middle movement of the Triple Concerto. The G minor work has a central Dvořákian hustle and bustle to it which is all the more affecting because it is framed by two meditative movements. In neither of the quartets is Simpson’s language likely to be an obstacle to discovering appreciation or even pleasure in this music. It is noted that in what can be a very severe genre Simpson has the music talking to the majority of modern listeners by keeping the total length of the works to less than 24 minutes and even then balancing the ‘plot’ in three movements. The 1994 quartet is at first convulsed by a jerky and persistent figure but this is followed by a cool and chastened lyricism. The finale of this quartet is at times smilingly lively and is very moving.

Between the two quartets we hear Remembered Music to a text by one of John Tavener's friends, Kathleen Raine (1908-2003). The words are rooted in the perfection of love, of loss and in the natural world of the West Highlands for which both Raine and Simpson had and have a deep affection. They are cradled quietly and sung with steady security and commanding control by Charlotte Trepess. Hers is a name we have heard before and you may also have heard her in Albert Herring. The sung verses are printed in full in the booklet. Remembered Music would go well in a concert with Warlock’s The Curlew and Butterworth’s Love Blows as the Wind Blows.

All three Simpson pieces are recorded for Stone in pristine quality by David Coyle. The liner-notes, which are by the composer, are cleanly laid out. They’re quite personal, disarming and seemingly candid. The disc has a quite short playing time. This is a pity as the music is as engaging as it is serious.

Rob Barnett

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