Molto vivace [15'39]
The Twelfth String Quartet was completed on 22 October 1987, having been commissioned for the 1988 Nottingham Festival. It was first performe there by the Coull Quartet who, as well as giving the first performances of Quartets 10 and 11, have long had a close asssociation with Simpson's music. No.12 is dedicated to the composer and scholar Lionel Pike.
The work is in two large movements, the first a deeply meditative, polyphonic slow movement and the second a colossal scherzo, in structure similar in some ways to the finale of the recent Eleventh Symphony (1990). The opening Adagio unfolds gently with a peaceful fugue subject announced by the first violin.
As often in Simpson's later music, particular intervals are made to generate the music. This fugue subject, spanning two octaves, makes much use of minor thirds and perfect fourths, and these intervals inform the whole work. The fugue subject gives rise to all the main ideas in the movement, with new melodic and rhythmic forms, sometimes compressed into fragments. At length the music gains in urgency, culminating in an intense fortissimo climax near the end, before dying away quietly.
The second movement (Molto vivace) is perhaps the longest scherzo for string quartet in existence. This ferociously energetic movement is still dominated by minor thirds and fourths; like the central part of Simpson's Ninth Symphony it adopts Beethoven's characteristic one-in-a-bar triple-time pulses, astonishingly maintaining the pace for nearly 1800 bars, though it is not, as the composer says 'all just sound and fury'. Large spans are in fact restrained and delicate, but even here the energy is latent. Throughout the piece there is also much humour, often of a rough, forceful kind, sometimes skittish and mischievous, as near the end of the movement, where an entirely new theme appears on the viola after an extended climax. The Quartet ends abruptly in a blaze of immense energy.
The String Quintet was commissioned by the BBC for its series of Monday lunchtime concerts at St John's, Smith Square, London. Completed in the summer of 1987 it in fact directly preceded the Twelfth Quartet. Like the Mozart String Quintets, it uses two violas rather than Schubert's two cellos. The work is dedicated to Frances Bain, a close friend of the composer and his wife. It is in one vast movement, employing two main tempi — Andante (Tempo 1) and Vivace (Tempo 2). Characteristically in Simpson's music these two tempi are related.
The opening Andante presents an idea of the greatest simplicity, a calm unaccompanied melody on first violin with a gently rocking interval of a fourth.
The other instruments take it up in turn, the last note of each entry being held so that (unfugally) a five-note chord is formed. The soft resolution of this is unexpected but euphonious. The mood remains serene and reflective for some time, until there is a tiny glimpse of the quicker tempo. Each time Tempo 2 intervenes it carries on a little longer, eventually taking over completely, building a fierce climax of almost symphonic nature. Then the process is gradually reversed, the Andante returning little by little, each time extending itself until Tempo 2 has been totally supplanted. With this the music returns to the atmosphere of the opening bars, and in the composer's words 'the end is peaceful and its sense of calm includes the intense energy at the heart of the work'.
Simpson's Quintet must rank as one of the most powerful examples since Brahms's Opus 111, written almost a hundred years before it.
Matthew Taylor © 1992