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String Quartet No 6


Robert Simpson provides the best introduction to the Sixth Quartet: 'The Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Quartets constitute a close study of Beethoven's three Razumovsky Quartets, op 59, that is to say, the attempt to understand those great works resulted in not a verbal analysis but music. The hope is that anyone studying intelligently the musical analogies offered here will find the experience of benefit in approaching and entering Beethoven's masterpieces … If these three quartets enhance understanding of the genius of Beethoven at their own expense, their purpose will have been served.'

In addition, it must be stated that none of Simpson's three quartets is in any way 'parasitic' and never do the Beethoven models hinder his inspiration. It is more a case that by close examination of the Razumovsky Quartets Simpson has added new spiritual dimensions to his own language. Anyone who has read Simpson's writings on the Beethoven symphonies will realise that he offers some of the most penetrating and illuminating thoughts on this master, and in Quartets 4 to 6 he shows the invaluable lessons that he has learnt from Beethoven.

Quartet No 6 (1975) opens with a single chord which contains two major seconds separated by a perfect fifth and a couple of octaves. This is a close analogy to the chord that opens Beethoven's Third Razumovsky, a diminished seventh, the famous 'Clapham Junction' chord that can resolve in almost any direction. Like Op 59 No 3, Simpson's slow introduction explores the many possible resolutions of this chord, creating a vast, awesome stillness. Each of the four movements opens with this chord either transposed and/or revealed gradually by successive instruments. The main scherzo-like Allegro enters suddenly with a jovial swinging tune full of dynamic contrasts strongly characteristic of the composer's rough humour. (If anything, the rhythmic impetus here resembles the Vivace of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony more clearly than that of the Op 59 Quartet.) Simpson's is a powerful sonata-allegro with the entire exposition written out in full 'just to make sure the players don't leave it out!' Much of the movement is governed by seconds and fifths, and from time to time ideas from the introduction drift past, still at the faster tempo, to provide a brief respite from the energy of the Allegro. After a varied reprise of the opening, the movement closes with a fierce accelerando recalling an upsurge of Haydnesque mock-anger!

Simpson's second movement, like the Beethoven, is disturbed and fitful, but is also one of the most hauntingly beautiful stretches of slow quartet music in his output. The movement possesses an almost timeless quality as it alternates between its three main ideas: the first a gently oscillating figure introduced imitatively on muted strings, the second a tenderly expressive phrase in A minor repeated twice, the third a more expansive melody high on first violin answered by viola.

Beethoven's third movement is a relaxed minuet, perhaps a nostalgie memory of the kind of music he heard clearly in his youth (on the sketches for Opus 59 No 3 he wrote 'let your deafness no longer be a secret, not even in art!'). Simpson felt that a minuet would not suit the idiom and preferred a canon, a double-canon in fact, a device which has its roots deep in the past. This canon, which is absolutely strict, is slow and contemplative with a deliberately animated middle section played pianissimo for most of its length. The grave beauty and sustained counterpoint seem to recall the late works of J S Bach rather than Beethoven.

The Finale is an athletic sonata-movement starting (like Beethoven's) with a fugato, soon merging into normal sonata activity. Like the second movement of Quartet No 3, this music is muscular and cumulative. Just as the music seems to be reaching its final climax it is halted by a high first violin G, and the lower strings enter pp outlining the Quartet's opening chord for the very last time, as if to emphasise its overriding significance. There is a final crescendo and the finale races through to a dynamic conclusion.

from notes by Matthew Taylor © 1990


Simpson: String Quartets Nos 3 & 6 and String Trio
CDA66376Archive Service


Movement 1: Adagio – Vivacissimo
Track 6 on CDA66376 [10'43] Archive Service
Movement 2: Con moto: Grazioso ed intensivo
Track 7 on CDA66376 [12'37] Archive Service
Movement 3: Molto tranquillo – Allegro grazioso – Tempo 1
Track 8 on CDA66376 [8'14] Archive Service
Movement 4: Molto rapido
Track 9 on CDA66376 [6'32] Archive Service

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