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CD Review

Robert Simpson

Late Orchestral Works

  • Symphony #11 (1990)
  • Variations on a theme by Nielsen
City of London Sinfonia/Matthew Taylor
Hyperion CDA67500 55m DDD
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Some of the best symphonic writing I know.

With the Symphony #11, British composer Robert Simpson ended one of the major cycles of the previous century. In 1991, he suffered from a stroke and lived out the rest of his days in pain too great to allow him to compose. He died in 1997. The 1995 String Quintet was essentially complete in 1991. It's tempting to regard a composer's late work as an extended farewell, but of course Simpson had no idea a stroke was coming. Indeed, the symphony shows the composer heading in new directions.

People probably know Simpson more for his writing – intelligent, illuminating, and accessible – than for his music. His Carl Nielsen: Symphonist probably did more than anything else to take Nielsen's work out of its circumscribed Scandinavian locale to the world at large. In the Sixties, he beat the drum for the neglected Havergal Brian. Before that, he had written influential essays on Bruckner, whose music at the time hadn't really made it out of Austria, and even spurred performances of the symphonies in Britain. He performed the same service for Mahler. If Simpson hadn't ever written a note, he would still have been a major figure in Twentieth-Century music.

In his youth, Simpson wrote at least some dodecaphonic music but destroyed it. Nevertheless, Schoenberg affected his compositional outlook, particularly in his micromanagement of detail. Simpson's mature music is tonal, although chromatic. He also destroyed four early symphonies. He had a profound understanding of symphonic form, and it took him a while to translate that understanding into music. The effort paid off. Few symphonies have the inexorability and inevitability of movement as those of Simpson. He achieves this even as he largely avoids standard symphonic forms. Simpson's music proceeds as germinating, independently contrapuntal lines. You can generally find all the material of a movement in the opening measures, rather than waiting for first- and then second-subject groups to complete. It reminds me more of an Elizabethan fantasia or the Nielsen Fifth than of Haydn. That's certainly the case in Simpson's Symphony #11. What's new here, however, is the sparseness of the textures, compared to earlier works. Often, the counterpoint comes down to two or three voices. The amount of "air" around the music leads to a feeling of intense compression. The symphony falls into two substantial movements, slow and fast. Neither one's a sonata, aria, or rondo. Yet each displays strong dynamic shape. Both use the same small kit of musical ideas and both share the same basic rhythmic pulse. However, the first movement is more inward and full of trouble. Much of it seems like a slow crescendo, with a quick diminuendo at the end. The second movement uses sprightlier rhythms, but it's not really light-hearted. The idiom seems a cross between Nielsen and Hindemithian neoclassicism.

The Nielsen Variations of 1983 belong to the category of symphonic variation, whereby a symphonic movement is constructed through individual variations, like Beethoven's "Eroica" or Brahms's Haydn Variations. At Simpson's level, comparative evaluations become invidious or pointless, just as they do for Bach. Everything shows high order and power. As in Nielsen or Sophocles, the artistic sensibility is that of a grownup – emotional balance and sanity the dominant traits. Despite my reluctance to compare, I can't help myself. This counts as one of my favorite Simpsons, even though I've got a long way to go before I "crack" it. Curiously enough, I find it least effective as a variation set. I discern only with difficulty what Simpson varies . First, he seldom begins his variations with the theme head. Second, his variations concern rather abstract points, like key relationships. Third, he chops the theme up into bits and varies the bits. Fourth, he does sneaky things like turn the bits upside down. I also suspect one variation is another in reverse. I can't prove it, because I don't have the score.

The theme itself comes from some incidental music Nielsen wrote late in his career, around the time of the Sixth Symphony. I haven't heard the work in question and I'm an avid Nielsen fan. I suspect there's no current recording. Nielsen writes intriguingly in four keys at once, but so sure is the counterpoint and the orchestration, that you feel it more as different simultaneous modes of C major. Simpson keeps this feature through much of his score. The work falls into two large parts: the variations and an extended finale (also based on Nielsen's theme) that takes up nearly half the piece. The first part further subdivides into large subsections that cross the formal variation borders. We have the theme. Variations 1-3 stick pretty closely to the theme and to some extent stand separate from one another. Variations 4-7, however, just take off as an extended allegro, with Variation 8 a brief, lacy scherzo. The final Variation 9 is a gorgeous adagio, a mere three minutes – but what minutes! – solo cellos murmuring to muted trombones. The finale begins with a fugato and incorporates at least one more, both fugatos on different parts of the theme. It's another steady-pulse movement that seems to get faster and faster, wilder and wilder. The thematic bits whirl around like pieces of Kansas in the Wizard of Oz tornado. I also hear references to other Nielsen orchestral works tossed in. Wow! The four-key clashes become more and more violent, until at the very end, C Major has the final, brief word.

Obviously, this stuff poses problems for orchestra players. However, Matthew Taylor and the City of London Sinfonia sail fearlessly into the storm and ride the waves like real masters. Hyperion's superb engineering keeps Simpson's textures, particularly in the variations, clear enough to hear. Undoubtedly, one of the best CDs I will encounter all year.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.