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

Symphony No. 11; Variations on a theme by Nielsen

Hyperion CDA67500 Review by Paul Ingram

Robert Simpson was a true hero of our time, and a modest and straightforward one at that. Resigning from BBC security to protest at cutbacks in orchestral jobs, his writing and talk about music were always filled with inspiration and integrity. Within Schoenberg’s own lifetime, Simpson set out, right from his First Quartet, to define, then exploit, a new form of dynamic, elemental Classicism in instrumental music, but for all the talk of tonal centers and motivic growth, Simpson’s works are all about real life, and our own times. Some find him chilly, but anyone who’s heard the music live would laugh that notion out of court. Simpson tapped into some fresh or forgotten accumulators of musical power, and the crackling electrical discharge, through the players and into the audience, is hair raising and unique. No big tunes and no charming miniatures here. If any Simpson symphony or quartet is playing live anywhere on your continent, then cross that continent to hear it.

The Simpson dialect and his tonal dialectics served him well right to the end, as these two later works show. Simpson can sound a lot like his beloved Nielsen at times, and the example of the Dane’s Fifth Symphony often looms large. The Nielsen Variations of 1983 actually sound closer to the work of the American symphonists than to Nielsen, or to the rest of Simpson’s orchestral work, thanks in part to the quirky, polytonal nature of Nielsen’s theme and to Simpson’s affectionate dissection of its tonal and dynamic attributes. The result is hugely enjoyable, ebullient, and inimitably Simpsonian. The work, with its big, kinetic finale, is given an expert, properly prepared performance here, recorded in a natural-sounding acoustic. The composer answers his critics by including the most open and warm-hearted sections of sustained, slow, lyrical writing to be found in any of his orchestral pieces.

Some critics (including your reviewer) believe all the symphonies should be in the regular repertoire, and this last, 11th essay of 1990 is no exception. Two movements again, like the mighty Third and rugged Eighth, but with a more fantastical sound palette, some pastel shades, and a vanishing close. It’s as though Beethoven had been listening to Debussy’s Jeux before coming to his senses again, and rounding up all the keys for the curtain. Fresh departures here in tone and structure, along with a bright lightness of spirit to contest the usual Simpsonian reminders of grim reality.

In lieu of live shows, please buy any or all of the Hyperion Simpson discs. Buy the Ninth Quartet, the First Quartet, the Third and Fifth Symphonies, the Second and Fourth, all the quartets, all the symphonies. Start here, with the Nielsen Variations, if you like. But start soon, or you’ll miss a lifetime’s inspiration. This is serious music, through which one determined Englishman hurled down the gauntlet to the self-regarding second half of the 20th century, and helped justify once more music’s claim to be the most elevating, questing, and stimulating accompaniment to the life we all lead. Paul Ingram

Paul Ingram

Fanfare Magazine, Issue 28:3, Jan/Feb 2005