Hyperion Records

Symphony No 1

'Simpson: Symphonies Nos 1 & 8' (CDA66890)
Simpson: Symphonies Nos 1 & 8
'Simpson: The Complete Symphonies' (CDS44191/7)
Simpson: The Complete Symphonies
MP3 £30.00FLAC £30.00ALAC £30.00Buy by post £33.00 CDS44191/7  7CDs Boxed set (at a special price)  
[Part 1]: []
Track 1 on CDS44191/7 CD1 [11'21] 7CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
[Part 2]: []
Track 2 on CDS44191/7 CD1 [5'28] 7CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
[Part 3]: []
Track 3 on CDS44191/7 CD1 [11'55] 7CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Movement 1. Part 1: [No tempo marking]
Movement 1. Part 2: [No tempo marking]
Movement 1. Part 3: [No tempo marking]
Movement 1. Part 4: [No tempo marking]
Movement 2. Part 1: [No tempo marking]
Movement 2. Part 2: [No tempo marking]
Movement 2. Part 3: [No tempo marking]
Movement 3. Part 1: [No tempo marking]
Movement 3. Part 2: [No tempo marking]
Movement 3. Part 3: [No tempo marking]
Movement 3. Part 4: [No tempo marking]
Movement 3. Part 5: [No tempo marking]

Symphony No 1
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.

from notes by Matthew Taylor © 1996

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