Simpson: String Quartet No 13 & String Quintet No 2
Movement 1a: Adagio
Movement 1b: Allegro ma non troppo
Movement 2: Adagio molto
Movement 3: Prestissimo
Movement 4: Grazioso e tranquillo
Movement 5a: Allegro molto
Movement 5b: Andantino – Meno mosso, molto sereno
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 here.
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.
from notes by Matthew Taylor © 1997