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Matthew Taylor conducts Robert Simpson’s Symphonic Swansong

Hyperion CDA67500 Interview by Martin Anderson

So we’re finally there – the last issue of Robert Simpson’s might symphonic canon on Hyperion (though not quite the last Simpson CD from Hyperion, I’m happy to say), with the Eleventh Symphony, written in 1990, and the Variations on a Theme by Nielsen of 1983. The Eleventh was Simpson’s last symphony: Shortly after finishing it, he was afflicted by a vicious stroke which left him in permanent pain, borne with stoic courage and the grim humor characteristic of him in happier times.

The cycle to date has been conducted by that champion of British music, Vernon Handley, and indeed, he was scheduled to share the honors here with the composer-conductor Matthew Taylor (b. 1964), for whom the Eleventh Symphony was written; in the event, Handley had to cancel through illness, and Taylor found himself with four days’ notice to prepare the Nielsen Variations before the recording sessions last December. As a conductor, Taylor has been particularly active in what might loosely be termed the Sibelian tradition, with premieres of people like Vagn Holmboe and David Matthews under his belt; and his own music – which includes three symphonies, four quartets, and concertos for piano, clarinet, horn, and double-bass – places him clearly in the same “Nordic” stream that embraces Simpson.

I began our conversation by asking Matthew Taylor how he first came into contact with Simpson’s music. “This goes back to a radio broadcast I heard as a kid in 1977. It was that fantastic old Boult recording of Symphony No. 1 – I’d have been twelve or thirteen. I had just discovered Nielsen at that point, and so I knew the name of Robert Simpson as a champion of Nielsen (bearing in mind that Nielsen was much less of a household name than he is now). I was particularly interested in hearing it, and I was immediately struck by that craggy opening, with those two trumpets in thirds. And even though I didn’t make any adventures into the Simpson archives then, the name stuck with me. Of course, there was so little around then.

“The next time was in February 1980, when the Gabrieli Quartet did the String Quartets 4, 5, and 6, the ‘Rasumovskys,’ supported by a very illuminating talk by Calum MacDonald” – Simpson’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Quartets offer a commentary on Beethoven’s op. 59 not in words but in highly original music. “I would have been about fifteen then. It was the day before my French O-level mock exam, and I should have been revising my set texts, etc., and I didn’t do any of that at all: I was absolutely swept off my feet. At that stage I was already composing, and the Beethoven energy, the Beethoven architecture, was something so lacking in music then – and here was a composer who was making this relevant to modern consciousness, and doing something with it. Even though my understanding of the Rasumovskys was very sketchy, probably even less so, I could see what a genuine and exciting artistic route this was, and from then on, I was hooked.”

How about Taylor’s first personal contact with Simpson? “I wrote to him, as I think many young composers did, to ask if he would give lessons. I had just gone up to Cambridge to read music. He wrote back a few days later to say that he didn’t give lessons – he was too hesitant to impart his own ideas – but come and meet for lunch. And so I did. It must have been about January ’84 when I went to see him and Angela; they were still living in Aylesbury then” – in Buckinghamshire, north-west of London (the Simpsons moved to Ireland a few years later, since Simpson, a hard-core pacifist, could then live in a country without a nuclear arsenal; as a committed socialist, he took an almost gleeful pleasure in leaving Thatcher’s Britain). “Even though it wasn’t official tuition, the extraordinary wisdom that was imparted – not only on music but on life in a very general sense – was something that you felt so enriched by, intellectually and spiritually. I remember when Bob put me back on the train at Aylesbury, I thought: ‘My God, here is a great, great man.’ Soon after, we became very good friends. He really was a sort of musical father figure to me. He’s a guy I still think of probably every day. So much of his writing about music had an illuminating quality, as if he was getting under the skin of it – even the composers who weren’t so close to his heart he could be incredibly penetrating about. His comments on the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, for example, and the way that he sensed there was a hidden tonal center there – he could sense what Schoenberg was trying to do but was anesthetizing his tonal senses. Another one was his comments on Bartók, who is a composer I like more than he did. He used to say that Bartók’s allegros rather struck him as an overturned car, with the wheels revolving furiously without any real action or real energy. Even if one disagrees with that, it’s such an incredibly penetrating thought.” Another Simpson metaphor described Stravinsky as having the kind of energy that props a crocodile’s jaws open on the river bank. “Exactly!”

When, then, did Taylor’s involvement with Simpson’s music become a hands-on affair? “I conducted his Second Symphony while still up at Cambridge. It was a scratch band. I chose No. 2 because (a) it’s small, and (b) it’s the only one that’s playable by the very best amateurs. It was a bit of a ragbag of a performance.” Did he come to hear it? “He didn’t, no; I think he had another commitment that day. The turning point was when I did the Seventh in London with the Thames Sinfonia, which is an orchestra made up mainly of post-grad music-college students and supplemented by some professionals as well. He was in Ireland at that time, but as luck would have it, he was in London doing a few things, and he came to hear us. He was so moved by the performance that he said afterwards: ‘Look, the next symphony I’d like to do must be for you’ – which, of course, is an enormous privilege. Hence the genesis of the Eleventh.”

Before we get on to the music and the recording, we ought to say something of Taylor’s own music. Just as Simpson at a similar stage in his evolution was clearly in a post-Nielsen generation, Taylor is audibly in a post-Simpson one – fair comment? “Yes.” And he doesn’t mind that kind of obligation? “No.” But one hears (for example) Franck’s students struggling, and often failing, to shake off the influence of their teacher – doesn’t Taylor worry about that? “I do. The problem is, if you have a mentor with a monumental musical personality like Bob, the thing that I found very difficult, certainly in my twenties, was trying to make it sound not too much like Simpson! Not that one wanted to shake that influence off because it in any sense was not close to one’s soul, but because it was so all-enveloping. So it was quite difficult, not so much to distance oneself from it but to take the elements from it that were closest to one’s heart and then develop in different directions. Another composer I’m very passionate about is Tippett. One of the things I learned was the wonderful freedom and danger in Tippett’s music, the way that he would take on any influence from any seemingly diverse and often bewilderingly strange culture or cultures, and somehow it would go through his own personality and come out sounding like him – not always to the greatest effect, when you think of the ’sixties and ’seventies pieces, when he’s got his cool American hat on; that hasn’t inspired some of his bravest efforts. That was also an important influence in just opening up. What one learned from Bob was this tremendous control of material, this energy, this way that tonality was in no way a soft option: It could still hurt, it could still drive, but it was capable of great, great beauty as well.”

By the same token, does the fact that Taylor the composer had to emerge from the shadow of Simpson allow Taylor the conductor to get closer to it; if Taylor sees himself downstream from Simpson, does he find a deeper sympathy with it than if he were writing different music himself? “Yes, that could well be. The wonderful thing about Bob’s music, certainly if you take the symphonies, is that they do radically re-assess what symphonic form is about, and that’s what all the good guys have done since Haydn. Nearly every one of his eleven symphonies (No. 2 doesn’t, really) takes a radically new departure on what a symphony can do, yet being inherently symphonic at the same time. I think that’s what excites me most about them. He’s not the only man to do it, of course. David Matthews is another composer whose symphonies do that – his No. 2 is a very fresh look at symphonic form, as is his No. 4.” All of Simpson’s symphonies contain great music; the one which, to my mind, has the strongest claim to being a great piece (and I use the word “great” very sparingly) is No. 5. “It certainly has the most physical impact; I’m not sure if it’s the one which will get closest to my heart.”

Let’s get onto the one which might be, then – Taylor’s “own” Simpson symphony. Coming after the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Symphonies – mammoth, monumental slabs of sound – No. 11 offers a completely different twist on the idea of what a symphony is; in his booklet notes Taylor draws a pertinent analogy with the purity of Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony. “Well, certainly in the first movement, in its transparency. I remember when Bob was writing it, he said he wanted to write something with a lot of air in it, and that’s absolutely what that opening is about: Less notes doing more. That’s not to say that Eight, Nine or Ten are prolix in any way, but every time Bob wrote a new symphony, he was wanting to explore new directions. With this one, it’s going back to the chamber orchestra. It’s the one that’s closest to a sort of polyphonic fantasia: Nearly everything seems to generate from that single line on first violins that we hear at the start (it’s later accompanied by cellos). It’s almost like a single monody that is presented and allowed to develop freely. As far as I can see, all the material is based on that opening melodic line, and elements of it.” Simpson didn’t write much about Purcell and the other British composers of viol music, but his conversation would occasionally reveal that he knew far more about them than his articles suggested. “Exactly, yes. You mentioned No. 5; I think in terms of its mood, it’s never likely to have that sort of smash-hit appeal; it doesn’t have that in-your-face titanic energy. Perhaps that’s what I was trying to get across with the parallel with Sibelius Six, in that it may take longer to get to the heart of the audience – but I’m sure it will.”

The finale (it’s a two-movement work) is as different from the first movement as the Symphony is from its predecessors. “I don’t know if there is really a precedent: It’s all at one single tempo.” Well, the Ninth Symphony, despite its huge, three-movements-in-one design, is also based on a single pulse. “But unlike many of his finales, where there’s an acceleration – not a real acceleration but a contraction of the bars – this one keeps all the way through, in alla breve. I think this starts with an influence one again wouldn’t associate with him, and that’s with Mendelssohn – in texture, rather than in technique or tonality or language: The lightness, the busyness, the quicksilver textures, quite frequent changes of texture (much more so than before), and much more interest in color for its own sake. He has often been criticized – I think unjustly – for not being a colorist. He’s no Messiaen or Debussy, but the color is there. Here it seems that there’s a lightness, a transparency, at the beginning of this movement, whilst not reinforcing the orchestra with any unusual instruments at all.” Taylor has touched on a point that I’ve made before, not least in Fanfare reviews: Because attention is always focused on the musculature of a Simpson symphony, it tends to overshadow the fact that he was an extraordinarily skilful orchestrator. There’s an enormous amount of color and timbral contrast in his symphonies, but because the sheer vigor of the music tends to force you to concentrate on what is going on, and because, too, the orchestration is there to serve the musical idea, Simpson hasn’t yet had the credit he deserves as a master of orchestral texture. “No, he hasn’t. That’s part of the problem. Years ago he was so wrongly labeled by some as a strange conservative symphonist, and the more you look at his pieces, you see they are highly radical works. I think it was Robin Holloway who so acutely said it was in his sheer tenacity in symphonic thinking and the way it can evolve that he was one of our radicals. And he was absolutely right.”

Before we get on to the Nielsen Variations, let’s think about what might have been. Before he was felled by that vicious stroke, Simpson was talking about his Twelfth Symphony, which was to have been choral. Does the evidence of the Eleventh Symphony allow Taylor to conjecture what No. 12 might have been like, or does Simpson’s constant radicality rule out intelligent guesswork? “It’s a tricky thing. It was going to be a collection of texts from various different writers, all with a common theme that unless humanity changes its course to choose peace instead of war, we’re all for the chop. It was going to be for chorus and baritone solo and orchestra. About the last time I saw Bob before his stroke he was poring over possible texts. He was thinking of some Gandhi, which would have been very interesting. While there might not have been notes in his mind, certainly the architecture was there – it was not a whiff of an idea; it was a serious project that was brewing quite hard.” This from a composer who said that if words were good enough to set, they didn’t need music! “Yes! When we listen to that disc of his choral music [Hyperion CDA67016], we realize what a fine choral composer he was. Alright, that’s a cappella stuff, but if one thought: ‘Would the choral writing be sufficient?’, well, yes – though it wouldn’t have been easy!”

The Nielsen theme Simpson took for his variations is, to put it mildly, weird – it’s an essay in good-humored angularity. “Isn’t it extraordinary! In quadro-tonality, if such an absurd title exists. It’s from the incidental music he wrote for Ebbe Skammelsen, a play that was put on in 1925. He actually broke off writing the Sixth Symphony to write these little pieces down. It’s scored for winds, three horns, and tuba. It’s the second number that Bob chooses for his theme. Of course, it’s so rife with possibilities for variation. Not only do you have the four keys so well highlighted; the theme itself is so quirky and so wonderful.” Simpson’s Nielsen Variations have something in common with Franz Schmidt’s Variations on a Hussar Song: You can make out the outlines of a four-movement symphony within the structure. “Yes, it’s the way the variations tend to go in groups of two or three. You’ve got that first-movement set, and then a scherzo-like set beginning with No. 4, that very quiet, rustling-string one, with three variations forming a crescendo, then that big, ballsy, brassy one, and then a very light, fast one, and then that extraordinary last one, that slow, ruminative one, with chorales being exchanged between trombones and celli – that’s wonderful music, so beautiful, so profound.

“I should say something about CLS [the City of London Sinfonia]. Getting that all in in four sessions was not easy. These rehearse-record days – I guess that’s how life is these days, so we just have to grin and bear it. But I was astonished when we got to the early sessions that absolutely all the notes were there and tight already; they were all bowed up. Some of Bob’s string-writing is very taxing indeed, and it really is wonderful playing. Even though it’s not a big string section in the Nielsen Variations, it still sounds completely full.”

The fact that we now have all eleven Simpson Symphonies – indeed, virtually of his music – on CD is a tribute to the late Ted Perry, the founder of Hyperion Records, who stuck with the project despite poor financial returns: He believed in it, and he saw it through – almost to the end. This CD has proved to be not only a memorial for Robert Simpson but also for Perry, too. Matthew Taylor nods: “Yes, it is – and how nice that it stands at that.”

Martin Anderson

Fanfare Magazine, Issue 28:2, Nov/Dec 2004