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Piano Concerto

BBC Radio Classics 15656 91762 Review by Andy Jackson

This recording of Simpson's Piano Concerto has proved a delightful suprise. It has provided my first encounter with any of Simpson's four concertos. I had previously discounted the idea of Simpson writing successfully in the genre, as his musical thought is intimately tied up with symphonic procedures. From his quartets to his music for solo piano, surface display is sacrificed or harnessed directly to the large scale purpose of the work. This does not mean that attention to sonorities and so on are neglected (see, for example, the 4th Symphony, written a few years after the Piano Concerto), but the kind of display for its own sake that a concerto would seem to presuppose is rarely present in Simpson's other music. It takes a very good composer indeed to create concertos of symphonic depth, but in retrospect I should have realized that this is exactly the difficult route that Simpson would attempt. So, what we have here is a kind of twenty minute, one movement Concerto-Symphony, with piano and orchestra as equal partners.

The Concerto forms an important stylistic bridge across the 10 year gap between Simpson's Third Symphony (1962) and several important works from the early seventies, notably his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies (both from 1972) and Energy (1971) for brass band. It opens, Largo, like the mirror image of the start of Simpson's 5th Symphony (1972), with violent explosions from the orchestra and soloist interspersed by intense, quiet chords, leading to a wonderful contemplative passage from the soloist – a procedure strangely reminiscent of the second movement of Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto. This deep meditation is accompanied gently and with great poetry by the strings. But the violent start is not so easily tamed, and short interjections from woodwind and brass imply trouble ahead. These interjections grow in force, eventually leading to a fierce Allegro based on the explosive material from the opening. The subsequent Vivace looks forward to the mighty Scherzo of the 4th Symphony, and contains some truly hairy moments with the soloist fighting for his life to prevent the orchestra from swallowing him whole. The music rises to a calamitous climax and comes to a thundering halt. What will follow? A strange antique dance (Andante con moto) takes up the challenge, but doesn't seem convinced of itself, and dark admonitions from the soloist bring the music to a pause again. This time a thoughtless march in a popular style swaggers out (Allegro con brio), rapidly growing in confidence, but getting more and more out of control, until it too hits disaster. The panic of the soloist is cut off by a curt final chord from the orchestra, forshadowing the unconventional endings of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. This brief description cannot convey the experience this truly strange concerto will give you – like a doomed marriage, it makes several attempts to reconcile its material, each ending in failure. Finally, being cruel to be kind, one of the parties calls the whole thing off.

There are moments when the balance between soloist and orchestra demands great courage from its soloist. Hats off then to John Ogdon (the dedicatee) for such a gutsy performance. In his program notes for Ogdon's performance of the work's premiere at the Cheltenham Festival in 1967, Simpson wryly commented: "If it conveys some inkling of the artistry of its remarkable soloist, the music will have served its purpose." The recording is from a live performance, and there is some background noise, but not enough to seriously distract the listener.

This is the first of Simpson's concertos available on a commercial recording, and it leaves me guessing what other wonders await us in Simpson's Violin (1959), Flute (1989), and Cello (1991) concertos. Hopefully we will not have to wait much longer to find out, as Hyperion Records are committing all of Simpson's major works to disk.

Andy Jackson

© Copyright Andrew Jackson, 1996