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The Power of Robert Simpson – A Biography
Robert Simpson, Composer: Essays, Interviews, Recollections

Clarinet Quintet; String Quartet No. 13; String Quintet No. 2

Hyperion CDA66905 Review by Martin Anderson

With this disc of three chamber works we are coming close to the end of Hyperion's vastly valuable survey of the music of Robert Simpson; indeed, that's the string quartets now taken care of. The unifying element of this disc is that all three works are continuous. The Clarinet Quintet, written in 1968, had the distinction three years later (along with the First String Quartet) of being the first Simpson chamber work to appear in a commercial recording, from Unicorn; it has since come and gone on CD as well. It uses the arch shape that Simpson has favored in a number of works, particularly in his chamber pieces. Here it is seen in extended form (the duration is over halfan hour): calm preludes and postludes frame two vigorous allegros that envelop the two slow movements either side of a giddily good-humored Prestissimo. Indeed, good humor is the hallmark of this Quintet, even when, in those two allegros, Simpson is at his most rumbustious. There is often a grin in Simpson's music, and more often than not it's a sardonic one; here it comes from the sheer unbuttoned quality of the invention.

The tightly constructed Thirteenth Quartet, composed in 1989, is also likewise full of robust humor, though the second movement, an Andante into which the opening Allegro molto suddenly evaporates, has a searching, exploratory quality that returns in the brief epilog. The Second String Quintet began life in 1991 and was the piece Simpson was working on when he was hit by the vicious stroke that has made composition so difficult for him since then; dogged, determined effort, the hallmark of Simpson's personal stoicism, allowed him to finish it three years later. At under 15 minutes, it's one of his briefest chamber pieces, perhaps for that very reason, though there is no suspicion of it in the music. In an image of his interest in exploiting the large-scale potential of conflicting tonalities, Simpson here expands the idea to tempo: the structure of the Second Quintet is based on the tension between two speeds, the first one, Moderato, gradually supplanting an insistent Allegro. The language is tough, uncompromising, the textures generally fairly sparse—no Romantic temptation for Simpson to turn to a Brahmsian richness in the string writing; instead, the soundworld is closer to Shostakovich at his most angrily introspective. Matthew Taylor's notes conclude that "The final diminuendo is one of the darkest endings that Simpson has ever conceived." Indeed: it is bleak in the extreme; but then Simpson, left in constant pain by his stroke, had little to celebrate.

I have to confess that I was surprised that the playing wasn't more confident. The Delmé Quartet has been performing Simpson quartets for decades now, but here and there the lack of sheer assurance reduces the effect of a passage, tones down the impact of some motoric rhythm—take, for instance, the glittering Vivace of the 13th Quartet, where the counterpoint isn't coordinated and (my goodness) the intonation suffers, as also in the Quintet. Thea King, too, doyenne of British clarinetists, takes the odd note rather awkwardly. It's the kind of playing you expect to hear in the later rehearsals: damned good, in all fairness, but not yet entirely there. From these musicians, that is unusual indeed.

Serious Simpsonites will want to know about a fascinating CD produced by Dunelm Records in the UK, in association with the Robert Simpson Society: Simpson's Symphonic Appetite, an illustrated talk on the 11 symphonies by the Scottish-born scholar Malcolm MacDonald, to my mind one of the best English writers on music currently active. In his hour-long presentation MacDonald goes through Simpson's symphonic output, drawing attention to its salient features and some less obvious (for example, it has always struck me as odd that Simpson's precisely imagined orchestration should escape praise so regularly—commentators often pass by without a word on the excellence of his scoring). For listeners wanting an overview of these monumental contributions to the symphonic catalog, MacDonald's analysis would be hard to beat. You can obtain it from Dunelm Records, 2 Park Close, GLossop, Derbyshore SKI3 9RQ, England (tel. and fax: +44 1457 855313); Dunelm asks for £13.75 in a check drawn on a British bank or in the form of an international money order. And if you want to get in touch with the Robert Simpson Society, write to Brian Duke, 24 Regent Close, Fleet, Hants GUI3 9NS.

Martin Anderson

Fanfare Magazine