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Hyperion Records

CDA67500 - Simpson: Symphony No. 11 & Nielsen Variations
CDA67500

Recording details: December 2003
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: August 2004
DISCID: C00CDD0D
Total duration: 54 minutes 33 seconds

'Matthew Taylor secures magnificent playing from the City of London Sinfonia, especially in the symphony where his pacing is ideal, due to his knowledge of the work—it was written for him and the orchestra. The Nielsen Variations purr along splendidly. An utterly marvellous disc, which I cannot recommend highly enough' (Gramophone)

'The recordings are entirely worthy of the playing, and of the music. It's hard to imagine a more fitting memorial tribute to Hyperion's Ted Perry, whose faith and tenacity of purpose made this whole project possible. Strongly recommended' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The performance by the City of London Sinfonia is excellent, the gifted conductor Matthew Taylor (himself a composer) creating the illusion that the piece is already key repertoire and that he's known it all his life. Good to know this CD completes the Simpson symphonic canon on Hyperion' (The Independent)

'This CD couples two very important works by a major twentieth century symphonist … If your local orchestra can play Haydn and Mozart symphonies they can play this one, but as the publishers have not seen fit to publish a score, and are unlikely to do so, your best bet is to get this record, dedicated to the memory of Hyperion's founder and lifelong friend of Simpson, Ted Perry' (International Record Review)

'One of the most important symphonic cycles of recent years. Here Matthew Taylor, the work's dedicatee, draws a deeply understanding performance from the City of London Sinfonia, bringing out Simpson's characteristic combination of taut intellectual argument and intense emotion' (The Guardian)

'The Hyperion label's commitment to Robert Simpson, the feisty conservative among postwar British composers has been unstinting … The polyphonic textures of the eleventh symphony intrigue, especially in Matthew Taylor's polished performance with the City of London Sinfonia' (The Times)

'Altogether a magnificent recording, then, and I recommend it enthusiastically. Simpson's music is always absolutely honest, as was the man; like him, too, it is tough and uncompromising. But he also had a gruff sense of humour and a profound sense of the demands of humanism. These characteristics of the man illuminate the music. We are the richer for it … in lieu of live shows, please buy any or all of the Hyperion Simpson discs. Buy the Ninth Quartet, the First Quartet, the Third and Fifth Symphonies, the Second or Fourth, all the quartets, all the symphonies. Start here with the Nielsen Variations if you like. But start soon, or you'll miss a lifetime's inspiration. This is serious music, through which one determined Englishman hurled down the gauntlet to the self-regarding second half of the 20th century, and helped justify once more music's claim to be the most elevating, questing, and stimulating accompaniment to the life we all lead' (Fanfare, USA)

Symphony No. 11 & Nielsen Variations
Andante  [13'25]
Allegro vivace  [15'27]

Hyperion’s Record of the Month for August brings the grand finale to our award-winning series of recordings presenting the symphonies of Robert Simpson—hailed by The Independent as ‘surely about the most imposing symphonic cycle in progress’.

Symphony No 11 was composed in 1990 and is dedicated to Matthew Taylor (who here conducts) as a gesture of thanks for his dedication to Simpson’s symphonic works. In two movements, it is scored for a Classical orchestra and continually hints at manners of expression hitherto unprecedented in the history of the modern symphony; all the more tragic therefore that it was to be the conclusion of one of the greatest symphonic cycles of the twentieth century.

Variations on a theme by Nielsen (1983) is based on a tune from a suite of incidental music for a play. As Simpson might have put it, ‘it doesn’t matter if you can’t tell a fifth from a rissole’ for the listener to enjoy this hugely entertaining work—the perfect introduction to those unfamiliar with his orchestral output.

This recording is released with sincere thanks to Angela Simpson, the Robert Simpson Society, the City of London Sinfonia, and all the other companies and individuals who generously contributed to it, and is dedicated to the memory of Ted Perry.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Symphony No 11
Like the second and seventh symphonies, Robert Simpson’s last symphony, No 11, is scored for a classical orchestra: in this case, double wind, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. As with Simpson’s Quartet No 12 (1987), the Eleventh Symphony consists of two movements only, the first predominantly slow, the second fast; both movements assuming equal importance. Though No 11 is significantly shorter than Simpson’s three preceding symphonies, it is no ‘divertimento’. Far from representing a culmination in Simpson’s symphonic thinking, it seems to hint at new directions and new manners of expression hitherto unprecedented in the history of modern symphonism.

One of the most striking features of the Eleventh Symphony is the chamber-like quality of most of the Andante and of a large part of the finale. Simpson once said that he wished to create a sort of luminosity of texture not unlike that of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony. Indeed, there is a sense of spaciousness and eloquence, reminiscent of much of the slow music from the ninth and tenth symphonies but never expressed with the economy of scoring enjoyed in No 11.

The first movement, Andante, is largely polyphonic in design: its pervasive feeling is one of tenderness and quiet serenity, despite continual shifts of orchestral colour. This is apparent from the work’s opening paragraph where a motif on the first violins, which provides the basis for much of the argument throughout the symphony, is answered by oboe and muted horns. The accompaniment is often very sparse, sometimes consisting of a single line. The music evolves slowly, seldom rising above piano, continually transforming the initial violin theme into new patterns. Soon the texture becomes more animated until the whole orchestra reaches a majestic unison C, before the music floats off into an ethereal coda.

The Allegro vivace must surely be one of the longest fast symphonic finales since Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Simpson once suggested that the opening might have ‘something of the character of a Mendelssohn scherzo, though I’m not trying to imitate Mendelssohn’s language. Anyone who tries to do that is an idiot!’. Certainly the woodwind flickers supported by delicate string pizzicati that launch this movement recall the style of Mendelssohn (the scherzo of the Octet, or the music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but as the piece gathers steam it is taken over by a more muscular vitality and Beethovenian energy. The final climax is combative, dominated by an insistent B flat, before disappearing on a defiant timpani note in a similar manner to the corresponding part of Simpson’s Ninth Symphony. The coda is made up of strange rustling fragments, “until the whole thing ends with a flick of the wrist, as if dismissed” in the words of the composer. So ends one of the greatest symphonic cycles of the twentieth century.

Robert Simpson provided the following additional note prior to the first performance of the Eleventh Symphony conducted by Matthew Taylor with the City of London Sinfonia:

After hearing Matthew Taylor conduct a superbly penetrating performance of my Symphony No 7 with an orchestra mainly consisting of students, I felt an immediate compulsion to compose a symphony for him. It depends on his opinion of that performance of No 7 whether he considers this new symphony a reward or an act of revenge! If the latter, I do not share his views.

Variations on a theme by Nielsen
The Nielsen theme used by Robert Simpson is from a suite of incidental music to the play Ebbe Skamulsen, which Nielsen was composing while simultaneously wrestling with the final pages of his Sixth Symphony. The theme, scored only for winds, three horns and tuba, is a glorious example of ‘quadro-tonality’, if such a thing exists, each instrument sticking obstinately to its own key apparently oblivious to the opposing keys. Hence the flute, oboes and clarinets begin in G, the bassoons in C, the horns in F, while the tuba amuses itself by trying out a few E flat major arpeggios. The effect is extraordinarily entertaining, although you don’t have to have any awareness of this key collision to enjoy the tune. As Robert Simpson himself would surely have said, “it doesn’t matter if you can’t tell a fifth from a rissole!”.

The first three variations preserve the outline of the tune. No 1, which shows some of Simpson’s most evocative scoring, scatters Nielsen’s four keys throughout the entire range of the orchestra amidst strange half-lights and high violin figurations, whereas No 2 adopts a more full-blooded mode of expression, emphasizing the interval of the fifth, both harmonically and melodically. The next variation, in a gently rocking triple time, assumes the mood of a lullaby. It is hushed throughout as the main melody is passed principally between solo winds, muted horns in unison, high violins and divided lower strings.

Variations 4, 5 and 6, played without a break, represent a scherzo, started by the strings with a real sense of latent, bubbling energy. The texture builds in variation 5 as the winds colour the texture, and tension mounts further still in variation 6 with a characteristic Simpson crescendo. The climax is reached at variation 7. This is an impressive display of rugged power, with plenty of brass, as the tonalities conflict with maximum force. An acceleration leads into the eighth variation – a light, airy scherzo, transparent in scoring and with more than a touch of mischief. The humour is intensified latterly by the tuba, who evidently feels like asserting himself once more by introducing his part of the original theme, though, alas, he choses the ‘wrong’ key of A. But the character changes radically for variation 9 – a fully formed symphonic slow movement, deeply contemplative throughout, featuring a broad chorale alternating between solo cellos and trombones.

The second part of the work, the Finale, starts very quietly with a calm string fugato. As with many of Simpson’s larger finales, the pulse remains unaltered, though an impression of an increase in tempo is achieved by shortening the length of bars until we find ourselves propelled by a fierce momentum reminiscent of a Beethoven scherzo. Throughout these closing bars Nielsen’s theme is continually evolved and keys collide with sustained power. But the key of C is allowed the last word.

The Variations on a theme by Nielsen were commissioned by the BBC for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and were dedicated to Ray and Rosemary Few.

Matthew Taylor © 2004

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