Robert Simpson: Symphony Nos. 5 & 6



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"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!

For me, Simpson is an exemplar of a composer who has gone beyond the highly subjective, autobiographical style of the Romantic and Post Romantic. This is not to say that Simpson is unemotional. What I mean is that Simpson’s music does not sound like a page torn from his diary. Whilst comparisons with gigantic natural forces are relevant – the development of human life from conception in the case of the Sixth, elsewhere Simpson’s passion for astronomy – this does not render his music impersonal. The awe that we feel at the sight of the night sky is what his music evokes in the listener. His music is also deeply exhilarating. Listening to it involves connecting with the fundamental creative motivating forces of nature. Consequently, this is music full of mystery and wonder. The two canons that form sections 2 and 4 of the Fifth seem to me to pick up where the desolation at the end of Vaughan Williams’ 6th concludes. Crucially, Simpson’s symphony enacts what it feels like for life to find a way to go on. There is nothing sentimental about how this is done but it is suffused with a fierce faith in the vitality of life that seems to me precisely what is needed as the world starts to move slowly and painfully toward life after a pandemic. It is also extremely beautiful for all its austerity.

How well, then, do these recordings capture the essence of Simpson? Simpson was quoted in a 1984 issue of Tonic magazine, the publication of the indefatigable Simpson Society, as saying that only one of his symphonies, namely the 5th, had had “a good first performance". On the evidence of this recording, it certainly did have a good performance!

Davis, as befits a live performance, brings a different kind of intensity. Sampling the first of the canon movements captures the differences well. Davis creates an almost mystical hush. No holds are barred, in either recording, when it comes to the ferocious outbursts in the outer movements. This is fabulous music that needs neither apology nor explanation.

There is a real need to establish a second wave of interest in Simpson’s music to build on the first, and to achieve that listeners are needed. The performance of the Fifth here is a splendid place for the new listener to start. 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.


Music Web International - Classical Review

…So does this archival new disc recorded in somewhat hissy analogue sound really merit much attention. The answer is a resounding yes with performances – well one performance for certain – that any Simpson aficionado simply must hear.

What makes this performance of No.6 valuable apart from its historical/documentary status is that unusually for Simpson he revised the work post the premiere. Simpson expert Matthew Taylor is quoted in the liner that the work was greatly enhanced by these revisions. Exactly what these were or how extensive is not elaborated upon but the significance of the composer's first thoughts is not in doubt and this recording will remain the only document of them.

The performance of Symphony No 5 from the LSO in 1973 conducted by the twenty-nine year old Andrew Davis is quite another matter. As any performance at any time in the work's existence this would be of note, as the first performance it is simply remarkable. The LSO's playing blazes with bravura energy and certainty. This was acknowledged at the time with Edward Greenfield succinctly describing it as "fearless in its physical impact"… This is supremely virtuosic for sure but with a ferocity and barely contained brutality that sounds quite unlike any British orchestra… Playing from the entire orchestra bristles with brilliance but the principal trumpet in particular is simply superb.

But it has to be said that Davis is excellent in the performance itself at leading the listener through the work… As these are live performances, there is a certain amount of audience noise including coughs and the well-deserved applause. Davis manages to hold the applause from crashing in too soon after the 5th's ethereal conclusion, the end of No 6 is rather more obvious so the enthusiasm of the audience cannot be contained.

For those yet to try the unique sound-world of Simpson I would strongly recommend that they do as this richly rewarding music. These performances reinforce the belief that Simpson was a symphonist of international stature and I suspect that this release of the premiere of Symphony No 5 might well prove to be one of the most revelatory archive/historical discs of the year.

Music Web International – Classical Review

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