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CLASSICAL  June 2006

CLASSICAL June 2006

Subject:

Simpson Chamber Music

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 6 Jun 2006 06:07:11 -0700

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        Robert Simpson
        Chamber Strings

*  Quintet for Clarinet & Strings (1968)
*  String Quartet #13 (1989)
*  String Quintet #2 (1991-94)

Delme String Quartet
Thea King (clarinet)
Christopher van Kampen (cello)
Hyperion CDA66905 Total time: 63:38

Summary for the Busy Executive: Transformation and transcendence.

Most of Simpson's reputation rests on (in my opinion) peripheral pursuits.
An early champion of both Nielsen and Mahler, on whose behalf he wrangled
with his superiors at the BBC for performances and air time, he wrote
the first major English study of the Dane, which helped to revive Nielsen's
reputation outside Denmark.  Indeed, he wrote on musical subjects with
laser keenness.  He got up performances of Mahler symphonies when many
regarded them as long-winded bores.  Vaughan Williams's notorious
characterization of Mahler - "a tolerable imitation of a composer" -
pretty much reflected the critical consensus.  He single-handedly
resurrected Havergal Brian's work and inspired the composer to a flood
of late symphonies, each a major contribution to the canon.  Despite the
historical importance of this work, I still contend that it stands outside
Simpson's main achievement: a magnificent series of symphonies and chamber
music, the genres on which he concentrated.  Though they differ greatly
in outlook and effect, Simpson, I believe, stands at least with Shostakovich
in these areas.

As a young composer, Simpson (1921-1997) studied dodecaphonic serialism
but decided he didn't care for it.  The transformations afforded by
tonality exerted a powerful attraction on him.  Nevertheless, serialism
- in particular, Schoenberg's piano concerto - did affect his compositional
outlook, and not just in reaction.  One finds the same kind of micro-managing
focus in a Simpson work as one finds in Boulez or Babbitt.  For this
reason, some call him an "intellectual" composer, in the sense that they
mistake him as all head and no heart (by the way, they're also wrong
about Boulez and Babbitt).  Simpson's music is about as unemotional as
Beethoven's or Brahms's, to name just two of his heroes, and one sees
the same drive toward "objective" classicism in all three composers.
He seldom wears his heart on his sleeve, however, and he always builds
strongly and tightly.  It may be that the current cultural climate -
both with its insistence that art be immediately apprehensible to the
Generally Intelligent Person and with its allergy to subtler emotional
states - has little room for Simpson.  Simpson - like Brahms, late
Beethoven, and Mahler - takes work.  Unlike Brahms and Mahler, however,
Simpson gives you few confectionary concessions.  Color, as in Brahms,
supports the ideas, rather than calls attention to itself, emotional
extremes are rare, and there are few hummable tunes.  In fact, in all
the Simpson I've heard, I can't think of any, although I can recall many
memorable ideas.  Simpson, above all, takes you on a journey.  You follow
a thread of music through the woods.  Enjoyment, for me, depends largely
on my ability to keep my focus on what the composer puts before me.

If there's better chamber music than Robert Simpson's, I don't know
it.  You have to start talking about some very big names indeed to give
someone an idea of its craft and its effect.  The Clarinet Quintet has
Brahms as its immediate inspiration, but as far as I can tell, it's not
particularly Brahmsian.  Beethoven and Mahler, without imitation, seem
to me the stronger presences.  The work runs to more than half an hour
in five movements, played without a break.  Consequently, we get the
formal classicism of individual movements (sonata-allegro, scherzo, slow
movement, etc.) and a fantasia quality to the whole.  As Beethoven did
in the fourth piano concerto, Simpson builds the entire work from the
material of the opening measures and varies it throughout, so that while
the music swiftly changes moods, it still sounds unified.  There's an
outstanding moment at the end, when the opening chromatic material
transforms into something almost naively diatonic - a tip of the hat to
Mahler at his sophisticated folksiest.  I could go on about various neat
manipulations, but - as with something like Beethoven's Eroica - it
strikes me as beside the point.  The richness, the adult, emotional
sensibility of the piece matter more.  A very great work indeed.

The String Quartet #13 (Simpson completed fifteen in all) runs to four
movements, played without a break, with ideas in earlier movements showing
up again in later ones.  The liner notes claim that all the material,
as in the Clarinet Quintet, comes from the introduction to the first
movement, a Laendler idea that Mahler might have written, but didn't.
If the writer is correct, many of these variant recurrences have flown
right past my ears.  To me, Simpson writes a little looser than in the
Clarinet Quintet.  The slow second movement to me shows almost no
relationship to the first.  However, the scherzo third movement reprises
the material of the first as if on speed, and the slow finale uses ideas
found throughout.  Furthermore, transitions between movements come off
as abrupt or non-existent.  For a Simpson quartet, it's pretty economical,
at eighteen minutes, practically "unbuttoned." But the last pages, despite
their brevity, lend weight to the entire work.  To some extent, it's a
rhetorical movement that one finds in Holst's Planets, where "Neptune"
suddenly lifts the entire work into another realm - from the largely
human, to the other-worldly - although in Simpson this sort of transcendence
plays out on a much smaller scale.

In one movement of about fifteen minutes, Simpson's String Quintet #2
(string quartet plus extra cello) comes from 1994 - the last work he
completed.  The composer, late in life, suffered a stroke that partially
paralyzed him and left him in near-constant pain.  This slowed his output,
as you can tell from the dates of composition, although it never stopped
his writing altogether.  The work proceeds in sections, alternating
between two tempos: a moderately slow one and an allegro.  Four slow
sections enclose three allegros, with the climax of the work at the third
allegro.  Everything in the piece derives from the opening measures: a
duet for the two cellos.  The idea, like most of Simpson, you can't call
hummable, but you do remember it.  The line has a profile distinguished
largely by perfect fifths and augmented fourths (tritones), with a couple
of rhythmic twitches that become increasingly important as the piece
proceeds.  The fact that you can clearly follow the transformations of
these ideas puts the quintet very close to a set of symphonic variations,
a form which attracted Simpson more than once.  The mood of the piece
alternates with the tempi.  I hear it as despair mixed with anger.
Simpson, particularly in the last pages of his works, usually saves the
greatest rhetorical weight for his final pages - yet another link to
Beethoven, Mahler, and Bruckner.  Often a transcendent spiritual radiance
results, one source for the importance most Simpsonites attach to his
music.  I think it worth marking Simpson as one of the few modern composers
who regularly and convincingly brings off this sort of thing.  It's not
a matter merely of volume or of brass in chorale.  Simpson does this in
many different ways.  Here, however, while the end does bear the weight
of the work, everything tends to intensify.  The work becomes bleaker
and angrier as it progresses, with an ending somewhere near the Slough
of Despond.

The Delme Quartet and their friends are old hands at Simpson's music.
None of these pieces are easy, technically or emotionally.  They might
as well have played three late Beethovens or three Bartoks.  Simpson
demands that level of commitment.  Fortunately, he gets it.  Fortunately,
his players "get it" as well.  They sound as if they've known these works
for twenty years.  Hyperion engineers provide them with a sonic stage
worthy of their performance: one which never calls attention to itself
but allows both the clarity and warmth of the playing through.  I recommend
this disc without reservation: superb music, superbly done.

Steve Schwartz

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