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Hyperion Records

CDA66905 - Simpson: String Quartet No 13 & String Quintet No 2

Recording details: February 1997
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Release date: September 1997
Total duration: 63 minutes 1 seconds

'Yet another invigorating and thought-provoking disc in Hyperion's invaluable Simpson cycle. Richly rewarding' (Gramophone)

'Stern but vigorous, with all the classic virtues of chamber music' (Classic CD)

String Quartet No 13 & String Quintet No 2
Allegro molto  [4'17]
Andante  [5'37]
Vivace  [5'02]
Andante  [3'05]
Tempo 1  [1'36]
Tempo 2  [1'41]
Tempo 1  [2'19]
Tempo 2  [3'14]
Tempo 1  [2'37]

The Clarinet Quintet which opens this disc is one of Simpson's most compelling works. Its expansive feel owes much to the models of Brahms and Mozart, yet Simpson creates an inimitable score which closes in ethereal beauty.

String Quartet No 13 is the most compact of Simpson's later works in the genre. Playing without a break, its four movements follow fast-slow-fast-slow pattern requiring great intensity from all four players.

The Second Quintet is Simpson's last composition to date. It is severe in character, containing some of the composer's toughest contrapuntal writing in the Allegro sections (which alternate with the calmer Moderato). The close is particularly gloomy.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Quintet for clarinet and strings
During the 1960s Robert Simpson produced two of his most compelling scores: the Third Symphony (1962) and the Clarinet Quintet (1968).

Like the Clarinet Quintets of Mozart and Brahms, Simpson’s work is expansive in design, demonstrating the fullest expressive range of his creative powers. It is dedicated to Gervase de Peyer and has subsequently been played by some of Britain’s most celebrated clarinettists, including Bernard Walton, Emma Johnson, and Thea King, who appears on the present disc.

The work is not intended as a ‘bravura’ piece for the clarinet, though it demands enormous stamina and intense concentration over large spans, whilst often exploring the extreme registers of the instrument. Due to the predominantly contrapuntal style of the music, the five players are approached more as equals, rather in the manner of the Brahms Quintet. The movements play continuously and correspond to the following types: I: Slow introduction leading to compressed Sonata-Allegro; II: Slow movement 1; III: Scherzo; IV: Slow movement 2; V: Fast finale with coda.

The slow introduction unfolds polyphonically (muted strings and then clarinet) with a subject on first violin which provides the principal motif that influences much of the activity throughout the course of the Quintet. The composer has openly acknowledged the parallel between his idea and the initial fugue subject from Beethoven’s C sharp minor Quartet; though as with the majority of Simpson’s works of this type the model acts merely as a stimulus for a new artistic creation.

The mysterious serenity of these opening bars is suddenly interrupted by the first Allegro which presents two new ideas: a stabbing repeated-note figure; and, at a later stage, a fluttering scalic motif first announced pianissimo on the clarinet. In the Adagio molto (Slow movement 1) Simpson divides his ensemble into two alternating groups: violins with viola, and clarinet with cello, each of which sings plaintively in broadly flowing lines. The central Prestissimo is Simpson’s first fully-fledged one-in-a-bar Scherzo, maintaining a characteristically irrepressible, galloping momentum for nearly eight hundred bars. Again, the presence of Beethoven is clearly detected in the sheer physical power and muscular energy. The second slow movement (Grazioso e tranquillo) is a gentle intermezzo, offering an atmosphere of wistful contemplation throughout, as the music proceeds with effortless contrapuntal ease. The strings are muted during this movement.

This mood is abruptly shattered by the arrival of the Allegro molto which unleashes a fierce development of the second subject from the first movement. Like many of Simpson’s symphonic finales, the argument gathers force by a process of metamorphosis, whereby the original ideas from the first movement and (latterly) the Scherzo are continually transformed; in this sense the movement is ‘doubly recapitulatory’. After a trenchant climax where the texture reaches maximum density, everything evaporates magically into an innocent, simple tune in F sharp major. The closing pages are among the most ethereal in all Simpson, as the music is quietly intoned on the clarinet amidst rising scalic figures which float up to the heights.

String Quartet No 13
The Thirteenth Quartet was commissioned by the Cardiff Festival, and completed in December 1989. The first performance was given the following year by The Delmé Quartet, who have enjoyed a close relationship with Simpson Quartets for many years. The work is dedicated to Graham and Alex Melville-Mason.

No 13 is the most compact of Simpson’s later Quartets. There are four short movements which play without a break and adopt a fast–slow–fast–slow pattern. A bold, leaping figure on first violin outlining the notes of the triad sets the Quartet into motion. Though concise, this highly athletic Allegro instantly creates a vigorous current through closely imitative writing and (latterly) through the introduction of pattering triplet configurations. The following Andante is again largely contrapuntal in design, opening with a meditative violin melody, against a sustained low C on the cello. There is one brief climax which quickly subsides to reveal the Vivace, a kind of duple-time Scherzo full of half-lights and muttering ostinati. This Vivace, the most elaborate of the four movements, becomes more hard-driven as it progresses, culminating in a passage of sustained ferocity, requiring great intensity from the players. But it is bluntly halted, leaving a slow, chorale-like epilogue marked ppp, ma sempre espressivo, which swiftly eases all the former turbulence.

String Quintet No 2
Simpson’s Second Quintet, which was commissioned by the Maggini Quartet, is his last composition to date. It was composed mainly in 1991 and completed three years later, receiving its premiere at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1996 from the Maggini Quartet, with Pal Banda as the extra cellist.

Like the First Quintet, the new work is cast in one movement whose structure is determined by alternating two contrasting tempi. But whereas the speeds in the earlier work were closely related (one bar of Vivace matching a crotchet beat in Andante), the Moderato (Tempo 1) and Allegro (Tempo 2) of the Second Quintet behave more independently. In Quintet No 1 the Vivace gradually invades the Andante, generating the central climax, before the process is reversed and the faster tempo has been totally supplanted. In the Second Quintet the two speeds are felt to co-exist to a greater extent, so that there is less concern with initiating conflict between them.

Unlike late scores such as the Flute Concerto (1989) and Symphony No 11 (1990) which seem to be evolving towards a calmer, more transparent expression, this Quintet is outwardly severe in character, alternating some of Simpson’s toughest contrapuntal writing in the Allegro (a kind of gigantic Scherzo) with austere, sombre lyricism.

The entire argument of the Quintet revolves around the opening melody, shared between the cellos. Two sets of intervals are fundamental to the work’s architecture – rising and falling perfect fifths, and tritones, both of which are prominent in the first phrase. The Moderato sections are stated four times in all, enclosing three Allegro episodes. The third Allegro is the most extended and tumultuous, acting as the Quintet’s summit as it explodes into a shower of reiterated quavers. The opening intervals constitute the last appearance of the Moderato section, now arranged vertically. The final diminuendo is one of the darkest endings Simpson has ever conceived.

Matthew Taylor © 1997

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