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CD Review

Robert Simpson

Symphonies #3 & 5

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Produced by Andrew Keener
Hyperion CDA66728 DDD 71:06
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Summary for the Busy Executive: What's old is new again.

What is originality ? We usually think of it in terms of a new, readily-identifiable voice unlike any other we've heard before. Thus, we easily regard Debussy, Stravinsky, Walton, Elgar, Hindemith, Vaughan Williams, Mahler, and so on as originals. By that criterion, Robert Simpson doesn't qualify. Identifying a Simpson piece can't be done after a few measures – at least I can't do it. On the other hand, once I've heard the entire piece, Simpson's personality makes itself known in a big way. I can't think of any other symphonist who works on Simpson's scale with Simpson's concerns or, for that matter, his control. The American Walter Piston may come close in his emphasis on symphonic argument, but Piston's language quite obviously comes from Stravinsky, while Simpson gives the impression of having avoided Stravinsky altogether. Simpson also emphasizes counterpoint to a degree not often found outside Schoenberg, Bartók, or Berg. To a great ex tent, Simpson stands outside of the historical movement of modern English music, while remaining profoundly English. You don't mistake him for Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Walton, or Tippett – to name the five major stylists of British modernism.

But enough of what Simpson isn't. Nevertheless, one talks about his positive traits with great difficulty. One hears the objective distance of Nielsen, the rhythmic drive of Beethoven, the chromaticism of the later works of Havergal Brian. There's a love and profound understanding of symphonic argument, almost for its own sake, divorced from obvious, personal drama. The symphonies make a terrific impact anyway. I'd compare them to classical tragedy. We feel the power of Oedipus, without knowing the Angst (if any) that compelled Sophocles to create the play. There may well have been none at all. As good little post-Romantics, we draw fairly simple correspondences between creator and creation. We find art as the expression of an inward state more comforting than art that looks out at the world, that tries to give us the truth of the world, rather than the truth of the creator's soul. If Simpson's music does deliver the latter kind of truth, it's a truth th at applies to us all, rather than to a particular. In that sense, Simpson strikes me as a Classical, rather than as a Romantic artist – a naïve artist, in Schiller's sense. Simpson's intimate knowledge and brilliant analytical prowess among the now-standard symphonic repertoire – he happens to be one of the great "explainers" of music – also influence his creation, and his models include Haydn and Bruckner. In fact, if we grant that an artist writes to some extent out of his experience, including his intellectual experience, it would be strange if this weren't so. But his results have little obviously in common with his models. The influences become abstracted and refined into something new. From Bruckner, we get an interest in the long arch of music; from Beethoven, the concern with micro-motifs, variation forms, and, to a large extent, the classical outlook; from Haydn, clarity of texture, surprising wit, and the simple, effective Bold Stroke; from Nielsen, the emergence of a tonality from the conflict of two or more key centers, as well as – again – an "objective" viewpoint.

All of this shows up in Simpson's relatively early Third Symphony (he acknowledged eleven symphonies in all). I don't know what its first listeners made of it. Except from Simpson himself, nothing like this – so far away from anything else on the British scene and yet so traditional in outlook – had appeared before. Furthermore, his knowledge of Western European music from at least Haydn on ranged so widely that many of his influences still aren't all that well known among the public and the critics. Formally, the symphony runs to two movements, each one side or the other of fifteen minutes. The first movement, on paper at least, is Simpson's first (and apparently rare) use of a symphonic sonata-allegro, but rhetorically it really is something other. Sonata-allegro depends for its rhetorical point on the shift from one key to another, in sequential juxtaposition. In Simpson's symphony, we have the Nielsenian drama of "emergent tonality," the conflict of two keys – sometimes sequential, sometimes simultaneous – one of which finally holds. Here, B Flat (usually minor) grinds against C (usually major). In the first movement, B Flat wins out. One also finds a Beethovenian obsession with thematic variation. Everything comes from the first couple of measures, two basic ideas: one in B Flat minor, one in C. Despite Simpson's virtuosity in generating new elaborations on these things, you can follow them fairly easily. Simpson always works to fashion themes that stick in the ear, through easily-identifiable shapes and especially the Beethoven trick of strong, clear, iconic rhythms to propel the music. The second movement, in several sections played without break, stands as one of Simpson's early examples of an acceleration based on the same rhythmic pulse. It begins as a "slow movement," moves to a scherzo, and finally a presto finale. However, both the unvarying pulse and Simpson's mastery of transition often put you in the middle of a new section without quite knowing exactly how you got there. The drama of the key conflict – which key will win? – plays out here as well, with the climax of the movement occurring on a blazing C-major-seventh chord – in this case, a C-major chord with the B Flat Major in the bass – an exciting aural symbol of the symphonic argument so far, before winding down to a coda that bleaches to nothing but a bare fifth of C and G. C-major has finally triumphed, but not really. One gets the feeling that the music has been stripped to its essence. Also, Simpson has a surprising trump up his sleeve: at the very last instant a little fillip of a B Flat Major sneaks in on top – in and out like a distant flash of lightning.

Any composer would have counted himself lucky to have written Simpson's Third. But what a difference a decade makes. The Fifth, if anything, surpasses its older brother, both in power and in architectural skill. Simpson's thematic economy has grown tighter, his methods sharper and more focused, his counterpoint simultaneously more complex and more comprehensible. The Fifth runs to five movements, forty minutes in all, played without a break. Simpson arranges his movements symmetrically: allegro, adagio (canon 1), scherzo, adagio (canon 2), finale (a second go at the allegro material). Like the third, however, this really "feels" like one long symphonic span, due to the efficiency of Simpson's invention. Everything comes down to three elements: two basic themes (one ascending, one descending, so you can easily keep them straight) and a "primeval chord," referred to in the liner notes as THE chord. One might also mention a repeated-note rhythm, although fashioning iconic rhythms occupies the composer less than in the third. Simpson constructs his chord out of three "interlocking" tenths (a third, plus an octave): C-E'; D-F#'; Ab-C', from the bottom to the top of the string section. The symphony opens on that chord in an eerie, dead quiet. The composer characterized it as "the part of the mind that quietly watches you, regardless of the sort of experiences you are having" – yet another reminder of Simpson's predilection for distance and looking out, rather than in. The allegro explodes out of this, with no warning whatsoever, and, as they say, we're off! I've seen this level of thematic density in the works of the Swedish Allan Pettersson, and almost nobody else. Simpson transforms his ideas constantly, although unlike Pettersson, he never allows his virtuosity to swamp the listener. You can follow the argument without tears, or pencil and paper. Although no particular rhythm dominates the movement, the piece is a whirlwind of rhythm and counterpoint, culminating in a fugue of demonic intensity, which finally breaks against the primeval chord and dissipates. We arrive at the first slow movement, a super-canon in six parts (no "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," this). Each voice enters on a note of the Ur-chord, from the top of the chord to the bottom. As impressive as Simpson's counterpoint is here, the expressive power surpasses it. In fact, it seems rather like nature painting, with reference to bird song. The central scherzo follows, and the storm builds up quickly – a kind of reprise of the motion of the symphony so far – only to break shortly after the climax to the second slow movement. Another six-part canon, this one not only has entries from the bottom of the Ur-chord up, but it alternates the canon theme with its inverse (the theme upside-down), pretty much pointing back to the contrary motion of the symphony's two basic thematic cells. The canon gradually shaves down to the repeated-not e rhythm on the Ur-chord. Other tones get added in the units of interlocking tenths until we have all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. At this point the finale kicks in. The longest movement of the symphony, it reprises the first movement to a great extent, although it greatly expands on the material. Along the way, we get reminders of the Ur-chord. Finally, the contrapuntal material whittles away to The Chord, on which the symphony ends, in a whisper.

Obviously, you can't phone in a performance of these works and expect to get through them. I can't praise Handley and his RPO enough. The orchestra performs with panache and rhythmic snap. Handley captures the large span of the music without getting mired down. Everything moves, and excitingly so. The Hyperion engineering gives you a Tiffany soundscape, and Matthew Taylor's liner notes are downright helpful. Highly recommended.

Copyright © 2006, Steve Schwartz