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CLASSICAL  June 2006

CLASSICAL June 2006

Subject:

Simpson 3 & 5

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Mon, 12 Jun 2006 03:43:18 -0700

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text/plain

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        Robert Simpson
          Symphonies

*  Symphony #3 (1962)
*  Symphony #5 (1972)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
Hyperion CDA66728 Total time: 71:06

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, Bartok, or Berg.  To a great extent, 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 that 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 naive 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, including 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 conflict of tonality emerging 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.  Nothing like this - so far away from anything
else on the British scene and yet so traditional in outlook - except
from Simpson himself, 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
emerges.  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.
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 in the bass - an exciting aural symbol of
the symphonic argument so far, before winding down to a coda that fades
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 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 are 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-note 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.

Steve Schwartz

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