The second movement begins with a set of seven variations on a palindromic theme for solo viola. (Palindromes have remained a crucial component in Simpson’s work, culminating in the monumental String Quartet No 9 of 1982, which is cast as thirty-two palindromic variations on a palindromic minuet by Haydn.) Even though this viola theme is unharmonized, it clearly traces the same tonal outline as the first movement, starting in E flat, rising to A at its mid-point, and falling sadly again to E flat. Each of the seven variations, which are strictly palindromic, follows this course, and the result is a prolonged effort to establish the key of A, but each attempt is baffled. Despite this, the opening variations breathe a serene lyricism, following one another in an inevitable sequence. Tension rises in the third variation and accumulates through the ensuing three variations until a severe crisis is reached in the seventh. Because of this, the music is forced to break free from the structure of variations, and Simpson hurls the listener into a turbulent double fugue as the two opposing keys collide with maximum force. A major is the victor, and the first violin, as if released, flies into excited running passages. The intensity subsides as the composer introduces a final reminder of the first movement’s opening theme, decorated at a late stage by delicate arabesques from the violins. The coda is a naive, innocent dance of almost Haydnesque simplicity, the key an unclouded A major. Robert Simpson once remarked that he composed these closing pages at one stretch, on a sunny afternoon in Regent’s Park: ‘Perhaps there is something wistful about the music,’ he says, ‘hence the marking poco pensoso’. The attentive listener might even detect a veiled quotation from a Beethoven symphony amidst these peaceful sounds.
from notes by Matthew Taylor © 1990