Poco animato [9'47]
Scherzo: Minaccioso [7'40]
Finale: Presto [14'03]
This CD of Robert Simpson's First and Eighth brings us almost to the end of our Simpson Symphony Series. (Only No 11 remains to be recorded.) No 1 has been recorded before (in 1954 by Sir Adrian Boult, its dedicatee, and the LPO) but that recording has never been issued on CD so this is the work's début in the medium.
The Eighth from 1981 has never been recorded before and performances have been few. In two bipartite sections, it is Simpson at his most intense: a mighty work indeed.
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The Symphony No 1 was not actually Robert Simpson’s first attempt at symphonic composition. He wrote a total of four symphonies during the late 1930s and 1940s (one of which even adopted serial procedures) but these were all subsequently discarded. The official first symphony, completed when the composer was just thirty, gained him his Doctorate at Durham University and received its premiere in Copenhagen with the Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra under Launy Grøndahl, a conductor widely admired for his now-historic performances and pioneering recordings of the Nielsen symphonies. The first British performance took place in 1954 under Sir Adrian Boult (the work’s dedicatee), whose recording, produced two years later, stills stands as one of the most authoritative Simpson interpretations committed to disc.
Some of the most illuminating thoughts on Simpson’s Symphony No 1 are offered by his fellow symphonist, Edmund Rubbra:
Let it be said at once that this is a most remarkable work, not only as a first symphony but as a symphony. There is not a trace of diffidence in facing the issues of symphonic thought; indeed to write a symphony in one continuous movement lasting about 26 minutes argues an assurance that is usually arrived at late in one’s composing life … the music is rugged and uncompromising but intensely logical in its thought and if there are more than occasional echoes of Nielsen in it, both in the scoring and the actual music, it is an influence that has been so absorbed and transmuted that one is aware of an attitude rather than another personality. It is this attitude that I find so compelling … the scoring is everywhere integrated with the music; by which I mean that the composer never introduces effects for their own sake. The score is first-rate because the music is first-rate, and I could give no further praise.
The symphony embraces a highly original formal design: a continuous structure which, by twice modifying the unit of time within the unchanging pulse, corresponds to the three parts in a symphony: moderato (first movement), slow movement and fast finale. Like Simpson’s first string quartet this symphony is unified further by pursuing an argument that revolves around two pivotal tonalities placed a tritone apart, A and E flat.
The opening ‘movement’ presents two main thematic groups, the first fierce and fully scored, the second calmly flowing and contrapuntal. Both these subjects provide the essential components of all that is to occur in this symphony.
After an arresting minor-third high trumpet call the principal ideas of the first group are stated: a terse, grinding figure on trombones set against a rising string theme, and an assertive, descending motif on A which closes in a diminuendo. The second group is a fugato announced on high violins, and conjures some magical, half-lit sonorities. Throughout this music the expression is very restrained, pensive and sempre pianissimo, despite minor disturbances from piccolo and oboe which recall ideas from the first group of themes. The ensuing development alternates fully-scored, extended climaxes which generate enormous fervour and exhilarating harmonic movement with peaceful interludes clearly derived from the fugato. The minor-third trumpet figure announces the modified return of the first group which brings the movement to a full close in E flat.
It is very rare for any early symphony to attain the level of polyphonic mastery that Simpson achieves in the central part of his first symphony, whose purity of expression and quiet grandeur is unique in the world of contemporary music. The only influence that the listener may readily recall is Palestrina, though the expansive design and harmonic simplicity is strongly typical of Simpson. This ‘slow movement’, whose main idea is an inversion of the second theme (fugato) of the ‘first movement’, falls into two sections, each featuring contrasting orchestral sonorities. The first of these is for strings alone and rises to a lyrical climax. A mysterious transition at the entry of the horns introduces a gently pulsating rhythm in the lower strings which glimpses momentarily into the world of the ‘Finale’. The second section resumes the tranquillity and is dominated by woodwinds and horns.
The last part of the symphony (‘Finale’) assumes a fast, swinging, triple-time pulse, the old triplet quavers now becoming a bar of 3/4. The two main themes of the work are further transformed as A major is briefly reinstated. But there is also an important reference to the central movement of the symphony in the early stages of the ‘Finale’ as the brass emerge in E flat, reverting to the initial time values, before A major is regained once more, and the energetic momentum is resumed. This mastery of ‘current’ or ‘movement’, so crucial to Simpson’s art, is already completely assimilated in this symphony. A long development section featuring insistent cross-rhythms drives the music forward, culminating in a majestic fugato based on the original trombone figure heard in the symphony’s opening bars. For the last time the music swings from E flat to A; a terse coda stated above a thrilling, insistent timpani A concludes this highly compact work in a spirit of great ebullience and irresistible vitality.
Robert Simpson’s Symphony No 1 is scored for a standard symphony orchestra, without percussion but with the addition of an extra pair of high D trumpets. It is published by Alfred Lengnick & Co.
Symphony No 8 was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society with funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain. It is dedicated to Anthony and Daphne Dorrell. Like the first symphony, No 8 received its first performance from Danish players: in this case the Royal Danish Orchestra conducted by Jerzy Semkov in the Royal Festival Hall, London, in November 1982. The composer provided the following notes:
This symphony … originated in the thought that the old composers (such as Haydn for instance) had the wonderful advantage of knowing exactly whom they were writing for. Haydn could see the faces of nearly all who would be listening to his next symphony … this is something the present-day composer can rarely enjoy—he can’t often say to himself as he works ‘I can just see old So-and-So’s face when this bit hits him!’ or ‘Must watch old Whatsisname when this happens!’ It’s hard for him to visualize even the sea of faces in a large concert hall, and on the radio it all seems to evaporate into thin air. So I got the idea of asking my old friend the late painter Anthony Dorrell what sort of symphony he’d like to hear, and then trying to oblige him. We had similar views on life and music, and he was intensely musical, so this seemed a reasonable proposition. At first he was startled, and naturally enough wanted time to think. But soon he came back with a few suggestions.
He thought of a symphony in two halves, two movements in each, with the only break in the middle. The second movement was to be some kind of scherzo, and the third a strongly elegiac slow movement reacting against a sense of menace in the first part of the symphony. About the finale he couldn’t be too precise, though it was to be fast and energetic.
The eighth proved to be Simpson’s most formidable symphony to date. It is scored for a very large orchestra containing triple woodwind plus E flat clarinet, four each of horns, trumpets and trombones, two tubas, two sets of timpani, plus percussion and strings. Although the work includes some of the toughest and most virtuosic orchestral writing in any Simpson symphony (particularly in the Finale), it nonetheless demonstrates the entire range of his symphonic language, showing a profundity of thought equalled by few of his contemporaries.
The two parts of the symphony adopt complementary processes. In Part I, the ‘sense of menace’ of which Anthony Dorrell spoke is felt to infiltrate the opening movement ‘Poco animato’. The Scherzo, ‘Minaccioso’, enters at the point of greatest intensity, when the menace has fully invaded the music. Part II opens with one of Simpson’s severest slow fugues which, as it progresses, allows space for calmer episodes. Each time the calmer music intervenes it expands. The tempo changes to Presto and a crescendo leads to the Finale which is propelled by a fast energetic momentum. As the composer has commented, … its energy has nothing to do with romantic triumph … it is simple energy, and energy can be used for good or ill’.
A tiny motif on piccolo sets the symphony in motion. Much of the argument seems to grow out of the woodwind figure presented in the opening bars: a rocking major second, often with the note in the middle of that interval sustained. This gentle dissonance hints at the enormous upheavals that are to occur later in the symphony. Initially, the amiable, rather pastoral atmosphere pervades the music for some time. The gentle contrapuntal movement continues, and the orchestral texture remains quite chamber-like and transparent. The first interjections heard on brass provoke a nervous triplet pattern on the strings, whilst the woodwinds attempt to continue singing in long, expressive lines. Tension mounts still further as the tempo quickens, the triple-time pulse becomes increasingly threatened by duple figures, and the violent outbursts from brass escalate. Eventually something is forced to give way and, at the point of greatest ferocity, the music literally collapses to reveal a series of quivering, sinister oscillating tritone figures. This point marks the beginning of the Scherzo, ‘Minaccioso’.
The Scherzo unleashes some of Simpson’s darkest and most explosive music. Four times a plaintive oboe melody (sometimes doubled by cellos) attempts to assert itself, but each time it stimulates a hostile reaction from different sections of the orchestra. The major seconds heard at the start of the symphony are applied here to conjure ominous repeated figurations and craggy dissonant clusters. The final appearance of the oboe tune draws forth the most mighty eruption yet heard in the work with full brass and the two timpani very much to the fore. But suddenly the climax breaks up, as if all energy were spent, and an insistent E quickly silences all the activity until it descends to the lowest depths of the orchestra amid distant strokes on the bass drum.
Part II unfolds with an Adagio. It opens with an austere, highly impassioned fugue announced fortissimo on violins where rising seconds and leaping octaves are prominent. Like the fugues found in Nielsen’s symphonies (the slow movements of Nos 4 and 6, for example), the contrapuntal texture is subservient to the necessity for symphonic growth. The first contrasting calm episode is intoned gently on stopped horns and answered by oboe accompanied by trombones. These episodes, full of evocative sonorities, are all delicately scored, and on each occasion expand while the stressful periods get compressed. The last calm episode leads directly into the Finale via a fully-orchestrated crescendo.
The Presto Finale displays a rough, athletic exuberance, with most of the principal ideas gravitating from the leaping figure on violins heard at the peak of the crescendo. This melody is derived from the corresponding figure in the Adagio’s fugue subject. Another important idea which assumes increasing significance as the Presto proceeds is a sequence of descending fifths, sometimes striding over two complete cycles of fifths. In the final stages the metre tightens from 12/8 to 9/8, from 3/4 to 2/4, and finally broadens again to 3/4. Four unison hammer-blows conclude the symphony, emphatically affirming the tonal centre of G. Simpson’s Symphony No 8 is published by Faber Music Ltd.
Matthew Taylor © 1996