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

Sonata for Violin and Piano; Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano

Hyperion CDA66737 Review by Martin Anderson

I always look rather askance on reviewers who give glowing write-ups to recordings they later turn out to have had something to do with, so I had better come clean at the beginning. My involvement – very brief – is with one of the pieces here, not the recording. Once upon a time in, I think, 1983, when I was living in London, the 'phone went. It was Pauline Lowbury, to whose cellist sister Miriam I had been paying (unsuccessful!) court. She got straight to the point: "You know Bob Simpson, don't you?" I did: I had got to know him through his sterling service for the music of Havergal Brian, a composer I then much admired (and still do), long before I realized what a good composer Simpson was himself. She continued: "Chris and I want to commission a violin sonata from him, but we're afraid of putting him in a position where he'll be too embarrassed to tell us to forget it." So I rang him and put the proposition to him, adding by way of explanation that Pauline Lowbury had been a violin student of Ernest Element, for whom Simpson's (now withdrawn) Violin Concerto had been written, and for whose Quartet, indeed, his first three string quartets had been composed. His response was as brief and to the point as usual: "If she's good enough for Ernie, she's good enough for me."

That was where my involvement ended, and here, twelve years later and nine years after the work's premiere (when I last heard it), it has at last made the step to CD as part of Hyperion's outstandingly successful Simpson series. On the outside the form is that of several earlier Simpson works: a two-movement structure, which, as Matthew Taylor puts it in the notes, "where a vigorous Allegro is followed by an extended second movement which combines the function of slow movement, scherzo and finale in a continuous increase of activity whilst the pulse remains largely unaltered"; Taylor offers previous examples in the 1962 Third Symphony (recently released on Hyperion CDA66728) and the Horn Quartet of 1976 (not, I think, 1977, as Taylor has here; it's on CDA66695, though, oddly, Hyperion don't mention it in their Simpson list in the booklet). I remember being startled when I first heard the piece how little ground it gave to what one might imagine a "standard" sonata for violin and piano to be. All of Simpson's music is in some way elemental, but here it seems pared of all consideration of texture, to be hewn from the bedrock of music itself. Ronald Stevenson, whose knowledge of the piano and piano technique is probably second to nobody's, once observed that there nothing klaviermäßig about Simpson's piano-writing but that there was so much life-force in the music itself that such considerations no longer mattered. This Violin Sonata is a splendid illustration of Stevenson's observation, for there is nothing to appeal to the virtuoso in either the violin or the piano part – though both sure as hell need first-rate techniques to bring them off. It also demonstrates once more Simpson's ability to cultivate energy from the simplest of intervallic patterns and the sparest of lyrical lines

Simpson's Piano Trio was finished in 1989 and is one of his bleakest, obliquest pieces to date. It's a big work, forty minutes long, in four continuous movements. I have never hear Simpson sound as close to Shostakovich as in the lengthy opening Allegretto, which inhabits a world of half-light and seeming stillness. But since this is Simpson the music hints at hidden strengths, at potency unspoken, and it wells up to two understated climaxes before ebbing into a calm coda. An edgy, angular scherzo in 2/4 chips into the silence and pushes testily towards into a rather dispeptic discharge of energy, until it is displaced by the Adagio, a set of variations which, like the first movement, swells into vigorous activity before the calmness of the final variation. The finale is another Simpson fugue, tense and sprung, returning once again to the kind of unspelt shade with which the work began as, in Taylor's words, "everything is dispersed in fragments".

Simpson's language is as refreshingly direct as its content is subtle, and in both of these works, and particularly the Piano Trio, the essence of the music is not easy to lay one's finger on. For that reason this is not the disc I would recommend to newcomers wondering where to begin exploring his life-giving œuvre; to that end the Fifth Symphony (coupled with the Third) and the Ninth String Quartet (Hyperion CDA66127) spring readily to mind. But experienced Simpsonites will need no further encouragement: Simpson's honest gutsiness is as much present here as in more "up-front" works like those two. Add excellent performances and clear and solid sound and you have yet another winner in this extraordinarily well-starred project.

By the way, congratulations to Hyperion also for another stylish booklet cover. I thought that the cover of the disc of the Horn Quartet was especially elegant; this one is more striking yet. It shows a solar prominence, in two vague whirls, red on black, as difficult to define as terrifying in its unforced energy – a metaphor for the music within.

Martin Anderson

Fanfare Magazine