The work is in two large movements, the first a deeply meditative, polyphonic slow movement and the second a colossal scherzo, in structure similar in some ways to the finale of the recent Eleventh Symphony (1990). The opening Adagio unfolds gently with a peaceful fugue subject announced by the first violin.
As often in Simpson's later music, particular intervals are made to generate the music. This fugue subject, spanning two octaves, makes much use of minor thirds and perfect fourths, and these intervals inform the whole work. The fugue subject gives rise to all the main ideas in the movement, with new melodic and rhythmic forms, sometimes compressed into fragments. At length the music gains in urgency, culminating in an intense fortissimo climax near the end, before dying away quietly.
The second movement (Molto vivace) is perhaps the longest scherzo for string quartet in existence. This ferociously energetic movement is still dominated by minor thirds and fourths; like the central part of Simpson's Ninth Symphony it adopts Beethoven's characteristic one-in-a-bar triple-time pulses, astonishingly maintaining the pace for nearly 1800 bars, though it is not, as the composer says 'all just sound and fury'. Large spans are in fact restrained and delicate, but even here the energy is latent. Throughout the piece there is also much humour, often of a rough, forceful kind, sometimes skittish and mischievous, as near the end of the movement, where an entirely new theme appears on the viola after an extended climax. The Quartet ends abruptly in a blaze of immense energy.
from notes by Matthew Taylor © 1992