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Hyperion Records

CDA66728 - Simpson: Symphonies Nos 3 & 5
The Image Bank
Recording details: May 1994
St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: November 1994
Total duration: 72 minutes 19 seconds

'One of the great symphonies of the post-war era, magnificently realised by all concerned. This issue is surely destined to be a jewel in Hyperion's already starry Simpson crown' (Gramophone)

'No one who cares about 20th-century music in general should pass these performances by, for it is music of a vital and forceful eloquence. Exemplary recording' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Superb performances from all concerned. Nothing but the highest recommendation will do' (Classic CD)

'Breathtaking renditions of two of the most masterful milestones on Robert Simpson's continuing re-invention of symphonic thinking … blazing and epic … Robert Simpson's Fifth Symphony is one of the finest such works composed this century' (Fanfare, USA)

'A marvellous addition to Hyperion's invaluable Simpson series and a "must buy" if ever I heard one' (Hi-Fi News)

Symphonies Nos 3 & 5
Other recommended albums
'Simpson: Symphonies Nos 6 & 7' (CDA66280)
Simpson: Symphonies Nos 6 & 7
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Robert Simpson’s Symphony No 3, written in 1962, was commissioned by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and dedicated to Havergal Brian who had inscribed his own Symphony No 13 to Robert Simpson three years earlier. Like many of Simpson’s works of the 1950s and 1960s, Symphony No 3 embraces the principle of ‘emergent tonality’ where a conflict is pursued between two opposing tonal centres, in this case C major and B flat. There are just two movements: the first a broad sonata-allegro, the second (surely one of the most impressive and original structures in twentieth-century symphonism) ‘a huge composed accelerando, but with the dynamics repressed’—in the composer’s own words.

The opening movement is the only example to date of a self-contained sonata-allegro in Simpson’s symphonic output. The attentive listener may detect a Beethovenian model which strongly determines the overall structure and dynamism of the musical argument. The Symphony begins mysteriously—octave Cs on violins suspended above sinister, semitonal woodwind murmurings. Then the first tutti, an explosive B flat minor statement introducing two motifs simultaneously which are crucial to the course of the movement as a whole.

After a recurrence of these two ideas, and subsequent development, the second subject group appears in F. This contains a number of themes: a calmer, unison melody first on strings and then oboes and clarinets; a hushed, chromatic figure on unison strings, creeping down and then up; and a brief, dissonant climax (tutti) that resolves onto an F major chord.

The development is concerned principally with expanding many of the former ideas so as to create broader paragraphs. The moment of reprise is heralded by the fiercest collision yet between B flat minor and C, the latter forcefully reiterated on trumpets and timpani. Eventually B flat minor is reinstated, and it is that key which represents the return of the second subject. B flat minor also dominates the large coda, which opens gently at a slightly slower tempo with a further transformation of (a). The final climax progresses through a thrilling com­pression of phrase-lengths and a defiant cadence in B flat minor.

The second movement is the first example in Simpson’s work of a massive accelerando from Adagio to Presto where the basic pulse remains unaltered. The composer has suggested it is ‘nature music, in a sense—the only piece of mine which has an origin in some external situation …’ Alternatively, it can be seen as a continuous structure evolving from the initial idea on first violins. Each increase in tempo brings about fresh transformations of the first theme: bassoon, Andante; bassoon, Allegretto; cellos, basses, and later all strings, Allegro; oboes and flutes, Vivace; second violins, Presto, the music seldom rising above piano. Finally it explodes into a vigorous tutti, driven forward with thrilling, Beethovenian momentum culminating in a chord which, in the words of Hugh Ottoway, ‘is nothing other than a dominant seventh of C major—in root position too—yet it sounds like some dazzling new discovery’. This climax quickly subsides, revealing a sustained B flat in the bass, against which a solo clarinet recalls the opening violin theme for the last time. The B flat then moves up to C, and the Symphony disappears magically on a bare fifth, C and G.

Symphony No 5 was completed in 1972 and dedicated to the London Symphony Orchestra who gave the first performance on 3 May 1973, conducted by Andrew Davis. The works plays continuously and requires the largest orchestra yet used by Simpson, including four trumpets, four trombones, two tubas and two sets of timpani. There are five parts: the first and last are energetic Allegros, the second and fourth slow canons enclosing a short, central Scherzino.

The first sound to be heard is a single, very soft chord (subsequently referred to as ‘the chord’) containing three interlocking tenths which represent, in the composer’s words, ‘the part of the mind that quietly watches you, regardless of the sort of experiences you are having’.

This chord recurs at significant landmarks throughout the Symphony. Suddenly the music erupts into a fierce tutti whose temper is rough and volatile. The main idea is a contrary-motion figure, moving chromatically, blasted out on horns and trombones.

Though this Allegro does not adhere to sonata form, the air soon clears briefly to introduce a second subject on solo oboe against a nervous repeated-note accompaniment on bass clarinet and double basses.

This is soon combined with the first idea until ‘a devil of a fugue’ (as Elgar would say) is unleashed on strings. The tension continues to mount until the progress is abruptly halted, revealing ‘the chord’ once more. The music breaks up, whilst the chord remains static, unaltered.

The top note of ‘the chord’ (C) is released by high first violins and taken up by piccolo, which begins the first Canon, proceeding with an elegant melody marked ‘Grazioso, ma non espressivo’. The next canonic entry is given to the first clarinet, which begins on the second highest note of ‘the chord’ (A flat), just as that note is released. Each successive woodwind entry is marked by the release of the next note of the chord until it has been completely dismantled and we are left with a six-part canon. This music is one of the rare evocations of birdsong in Simpson’s work, and one where the listener may sense a parallel, not with Messaien but with the dream sequence in Nielsen’s Saga-Drøm.

The Scherzino (the shortest of all Simpson’s symphonic movements) is dominated throughout by an insistent side-drum figure. The form is simple: crescendo–climax–diminuendo. The movement, which opens with solo side drum (pianissimo) and a climbing figure on pairs of woodwinds, culminates in a passage of titanic force—the central point of the Symphony—before receding.

Just as Canone 1 gradually dismantled ‘the chord’ from the top, so Canone 2 (Adagio) re-assembles it from the lowest note. The first entry of the new canon starts on a low C (cellos and bassoon) which rises and falls before settling again on C amidst mysterious patterings. The entries alternate between this original and its inversion. The next entry (violas and oboe) takes E (a tenth above) and follows a similar procedure. Finally, the six-note chord is fully assembled once more but heard in repeated pizzicato figurations. A transposition of the chord (E flat, G, F, A, B, E flat) is then added on brass and wind, until the two missing notes (B flat and D flat) are supplied by trumpets. A menacing crescendo, containing all twelve chromatic notes, leads directly into the Finale. This Finale is a vastly expanded, modified reprise of the first Allegro, the pulse altered from three to two beats in a bar. Most of the material is familiar, but takes on new life, new energy. The massive coda occupies almost half the length of the Finale, beginning with a sudden, unexpected, hushed string tremolando alternating with reminders of ‘the chord’. From here the music gains further momentum, each climax more ferocious than the last, until the full orchestra arrives on a chord consisting of superimposed dominant sevenths on C and G. But even this is silenced by ‘the chord’. The Finale desperately attempts to reassert itself, but is dispersed into fragments, like the first Allegro, until all that remains is the chord itself. And finally that disappears too.

Matthew Taylor © 1994

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