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String Quartet No 4


Simpson’s Quartet No 4 was completed in 1973, some twenty years after the composition of No 3, and bears a close relationship to the first Beethoven Rasumovsky, Op 59 No 1. It is dedicated to Basil Lam, the great Bach scholar. Like the Beethoven, Simpson’s quartet opens with a sonata-allegro that presents a rising cello melody later answered by the first violin as a crescendo is built. The second subject, more song-like in character, is also on first violin and is based on a simple, ascending C major scale, surrounded by richly polyphonic accompaniment. Considerable conflict alternates with mysterious serenity in the ensuing development, and following a modified return of the opening, the movement closes with a sustained ritardando, elongating the original melody as it ascends to the heights until it is barely recognizable.

Beethoven’s second movement is one of his most unusual scherzi, both in form and manner. Consequently, Simpson preferred to allude to its tonal structure (including its prominent use of repeated notes) rather than imitate its mood and pace. Both movements begin with solo viola playing an isolated rhythm on B flat; Beethoven’s is in moderate tempo and is playful and delicate, whereas Simpson chooses a very fast triple-metre opening with a menacing crescendo! However, something of the fantastic humour of the Beethoven original has been skilfully recaptured, with its rapid, unpredictable changes of texture and activity.

Robert Simpson was eager to avoid the funereal overtones of Beethoven’s adagio, so he decided to compose a slow movement at a slightly quicker tempo, an andante, whose emphasis is more on plaintive lyricism, though there are passionate outbursts of extreme power at climactic moments. A low C on cello leads directly into the finale which, like the first movement, is a large sonata design. Simpson describes the Beethoven finale as ‘Arcadian, airy’; though his variation is more combative, making deliberate play with the rivalry of the two conflicting keys, F and D, which begins to show itself in this work far earlier than in the Rasumovsky. Like Beethoven’s, Simpson’s last movement slows down towards the end to make an expressive point of the gentle tension between F and D, though Simpson’s adagio interlude is more extended and penetrates deeper. This might well be because greater relaxation is needed to offset the more radical tonal contest. This is pursued right to the end of the explosive coda; the key of D nearly gains the upper hand, but is aggressively dismissed by F at the very last bar.

from notes by Maurice Powell © 1990


Simpson: String Quartets Nos 1 & 4


Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Presto
Movement 3: Andante sostentuto
Movement 4: Assai vivace

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