Robert Simpson: Symphony Nos. 5 & 6
"If you haven’t heard Simpson yet, listen to this disc. If you have sampled Simpson in the past but not taken it any further, listen to this disc. If you have listened to Simpson a lot in the past but not much recently, listen to this disc. If you are already a fan of Simpson, you don’t need me to tell you to listen to this disc. To paraphrase a saying about Haydn, there are those who know Robert Simpson and those who are missing out." Musicweb-International
Robert Simpson wrote his Fifth Symphony in 1972 in response to a commission by the London Symphony Orchestra. The first performance of the symphony took place on 3 May 1973 at the Royal Festival Hall, under the direction of Andrew Davis. Another London performance took place on 29 March 1984, again in the Royal Festival Hall, with the Philharmonia, the conductor again being Andrew Davis. In both cases audience and press reception was unanimously enthusiastic. Desmond Shawe-Taylor, in a review in the Sunday Times headed “Power of Robert Simpson”, detected “some shattering personal crisis” and observed that the 4th and 5th Symphonies “compel all but the most rigidly advanced of listeners to take a closer look at this remarkable composer.” He found the Fifth “bolder, tougher and more mysterious in substance.” Edward Greenfield in his review for the Guardian stated: “His structures emerge naturally out of the material, without ever seeming, even in the most ingenious moments, to be working to a forced pattern.” He added: “The performance was one of the finest premieres I can remember of a major orchestral work, fearless in its physical impact.” Robert Matthew-Walker recollects: “The performance was electrifying, and the young Andrew Davis was at his considerable best. The effect of the opening three or four minutes of the Symphony will remain indelibly etched in my memory.
Simpson’s Sixth Symphony, of 1977, was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with funds provided by the Arts Council, who later sponsored the recording of the Sixth and Seventh, and also contributed to a number of later Commissions. It received its premiere performance on 8 April 1980 at the Royal Festival Hall with The London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Charles Groves. Edward Greenfield wrote in his Guardian review: “Happily Dr Simpson’s metaphors are incidental to his genuinely musical imagination. So after the fragmentary germinal motives at the start, he turns very quickly to a bold tonal melody such as Nielsen might have written. One might even say that another of Dr Simpson’s great influences is represented too; he has often acknowledged his debt to Beethoven and here he has in effect written a Pastoral symphony for the 20th century, a view of nature observed not through the eye of the individual but through the microscope.”
Lyrita put us in their debt by allowing us to compare performances of two of his most impressive works. Thanks are due also to the Robert Simpson Society for helping to fund the release. So, for the uninitiated what is a Simpson symphony like to listen to? Personally, I think comparisons are not particularly helpful. I do not find that they sound particularly like Nielsen even though I know his fingerprints can be easily detected. The same could be said for Bruckner. The most apposite analogy I can think of is the first movement of Beethoven’s 9th. But none of these tell us very much about what the music actually sounds like!