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Robert SIMPSON (1921-1997)
Symphony No.5 (1972) [38:53]
Symphony No.6 (1977) [33:12]
London Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis (No.5)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Charles Groves (No.6)
rec. 3 May 1973 Royal Festival Hall London (No.5); 8 April 1980 Royal Festival Hall, London (No.6)
Reviewed as downloaded from digital press preview
LYRITA SRCD389 [72:05]

About a year ago, I began compiling a list of composers under the heading “The Left Behinds”. The idea was to include composers who, on account of bad luck in terms of timing and fashion, had not yet had the due the quality of their music deserves. I was inspired to do this by the discovery of the startling music of the Russian composer Galina Ustvolskya. I quickly added a few more names to the list – Vyacheslav Artyomov and Avet Terterian. Expanding the scope of what constituted a Left Behind, I included the late music of both Benjamin Britten and Shostakovich. It seems to me that marvellous scores like Owen Wingrave, Phaedra or the Michelangelo Suite are barely appreciated even today. I won’t bore you further with the entire list but one name was always going to feature prominently: Robert Simpson.

In some ways, this is a peculiar state of affairs. No other composer has had a society set up during their lifetime to promote his work and few have had the luxury of an excellent series of recordings made of their music. Despite all of this crucial and extraordinary work, Simpson remains a Left Behind.

This review has an unabashed agenda and that is to bang a drum as loud as possible for this wonderful composer. I doubt that Simpson will ever reach the levels of popularity that Mahler now enjoys but his continued absence from concert programmes and the dearth of new recordings suggests to me that, despite phenomenal efforts by his advocates, there remain a lot of listeners who would enjoy his music but haven’t heard it. Presumably, this even includes readers of this website.

The story of the reception of Simpson’s music is one of unfortunate timing. Viewed as a “tonal composer” when serialism was the only acceptable dogma, he was further seen as belonging to an older generation when this attitude started to relax. He was neither a modernist nor a post-modernist, but stubbornly himself. Finally, he appears to have experienced the neglect that seems to be the fate of all but a small handful of composers after they die. ‘Hyperion’s wonderful legacy of recordings exists so why bother with Simpson?’ seems to be the net result. (RPO, RLPO/Vernon Handley: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5, Hyperion CDA66728; 6 and 7 Hyperion CDA66280, both download only, or Archive Service, or complete symphonies CDS44191/7, 7 CDs at a special price – review. All available from hyperion-records.co.uk).

Looking back on all of this from the vantage point of 2021, it all seems strangely dated. The idea of an ideological war between serialism and more traditional approaches seems as odd and archaic as the struggle between adherents of Wagner and those of Brahms. Worse, this has tended to focus an awful lot of what has been written about Simpson on the technical means of his music rather than the music itself. The cruel irony is that it was precisely music based on ideological approaches that he rejected. He wanted his music to be judged on what the listener heard, not the ideas behind it. “Music is for people, not for experts,” he told Bruce Duffie in a 1991 interview.

I came back to Simpson, for this review, after a month of intensive listening to Stockhausen’s stunning and strange cycle of operas, Licht. According to ideology, these two ought to be poles apart yet they aren’t. Very different temperaments, of course, but, towards the end of their very different careers, both were building their scores from the most basic building blocks of music – the intervals between notes themselves. Both were interested in the natural development of larger forms using techniques Bach would have understood such as inversions and palindromic effects. These technical details are beside the point. Listening today in 2021, I want to listen to both Stockhausen and Simpson.

By an extremely circuitous route, this takes me back to the release under consideration here. Released to mark the centenary of Simpson’s birth, it features live recordings originating from the BBC of the world premieres of the symphonies Nos. 5 and 6.

One of the consequences of the relative neglect of Simpson is that there really is very little by way performance tradition to speak of for a lot of his music. Lyrita put us in their debt by allowing us to compare performances of two of his most impressive works. Thanks are due also to the Robert Simpson Society for helping to fund the release.

So, for the uninitiated what is a Simpson symphony like to listen to? Personally, I think comparisons are not particularly helpful. I do not find that they sound particularly like Nielsen even though I know his fingerprints can be easily detected. The same could be said for Bruckner. The most apposite analogy I can think of is the first movement of Beethoven’s 9th. But none of these tell us very much about what the music actually sounds like!

For me, Simpson is an exemplar of a composer who has gone beyond the highly subjective, autobiographical style of the Romantic and Post Romantic. This is not to say that Simpson is unemotional. What I mean is that Simpson’s music does not sound like a page torn from his diary. Whilst comparisons with gigantic natural forces are relevant – the development of human life from conception in the case of the Sixth, elsewhere Simpson’s passion for astronomy – this does not render his music impersonal. The awe that we feel at the sight of the night sky is what his music evokes in the listener. His music is also deeply exhilarating. Listening to it involves connecting with the fundamental creative motivating forces of nature. Consequently, this is music full of mystery and wonder. The two canons that form sections 2 and 4 of the Fifth seem to me to pick up where the desolation at the end of Vaughan Williams’ 6th concludes. Crucially, Simpson’s symphony enacts what it feels like for life to find a way to go on. There is nothing sentimental about how this is done but it is suffused with a fierce faith in the vitality of life that seems to me precisely what is needed as the world starts to move slowly and painfully toward life after a pandemic. It is also extremely beautiful for all its austerity.

How well, then, do these recordings capture the essence of Simpson? Simpson was quoted in a 1984 issue of Tonic magazine, the publication of the indefatigable Simpson Society, as saying that only one of his symphonies, namely the 5th, had had “a good first performance". On the evidence of this recording, it certainly did have a good performance! Devotees will probably already be familiar with this performance (it is on YouTube) but it is wonderful to have it spruced up for CD release. Davis has the full measure of the breadth of the symphony’s argument. Is there a more underrated conductor currently active? It is a great pity that, as far as I know, he has not recorded any other Simpson. I, for one, would love to hear him and his superb Bergen orchestra give us Simpson for the 21st century in up-to-date Chandos sound.

Putting Davis alongside Handley (Hyperion – see above for details), they are satisfyingly different. Both are superb. Handley is clear headed and focused on the longer-term argument of the music. Davis, as befits a live performance, brings a different kind of intensity. Sampling the first of the canon movements captures the differences well. Handley is straightforward, trusting in the cumulative momentum of the music where Davis creates an almost mystical hush. Both tell us something important about this endlessly fascinating score. No holds are barred, in either recording, when it comes to the ferocious outbursts in the outer movements. With better sound, the first eruption in the opening movement takes the breath away in Handley’s hands. I marginally preferred Davis’ way with the hushed string chord, from which the whole work is derived, particularly in the closing pages which are absolutely electrifying here. This is fabulous music that needs neither apology nor explanation. I am delighted to have both of these accounts but I do feel that Davis pips Handley at the post, which speaks loudly for how good his Fifth is.

The next matter is whether Simpson’s statement about the quality of the premieres of his symphonies applies to the coupling on this disc. Unfortunately, it is pretty accurate. This version sounds like a good run through, reflecting, as Simpson said, a couple of days’ rehearsal rather than the in depth familiarity required for a recording. Everybody does a thoroughly professional job but something essential is missing. As I have already noted, the thread of the development of motives is crucial to Simpson’s methods. Without it, the music lacks that all important sense of inexorable momentum and the climaxes come out as noisy rather than cataclysmic. Unfortunately for Sir Charles Groves, Handley is at his considerable best in this symphony and the RLPO play their socks off for him. All of this noted, it is highly stimulating to hear another way with this music.

There is a real need to establish a second wave of interest in Simpson’s music to build on the first, and to achieve that listeners are needed. The performance of the Fifth here is a splendid place for the new listener to start. If you haven’t heard Simpson yet, listen to this disc. If you have sampled Simpson in the past but not taken it any further, listen to this disc. If you have listened to Simpson a lot in the past but not much recently, listen to this disc. If you are already a fan of Simpson, you don’t need me to tell you to listen to this disc. To paraphrase a saying about Haydn, there are those who know Robert Simpson and those who are missing out.

David McDade



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