These are two of the most extraordinary British symphonies to emerge since the Second World War. Simpson (b. 1921) tends to build his ideas as musical cells, but one will be motile, while the other is static. He will combine these and then let them evolve. It only seems atonal, but it isn't. Simpson lets the music emerge or submerge when it wants to. You can hear hints of Sibelius's moodiness, but beyond Sibelius, you won't be able to identify anybody other than Simpson. Hyperion is releasing all of Simpson's symphonies as well as his string quartets. Start here with these masterpieces. --Paul Cook
There is little about the music of Robert Simpson that can be described as ordinary, traditional, or conventional. Symphony 6 demonstrates that uniqueness well, even to its concept - or should I say conception? It was dedicated to renowned AND notorious fertility pioneer Ian Craft, who proposed that a symphony could be written that paralleled a human life from fertilization through development, the two parts divided by a musically climactic birth. (Craft is a VERY interesting figure. If you are interested in his eye-opening career, I have provided more information following the recommendation of this album below.)
The first part of Symphony 6 begins quietly with the germinal cells represented by a static chord and motile violins. You can almost see the egg and the spermatozoa traveling towards each other (They both do, of course, outside Simpson's musical representation) prior to the moment of fertilization. Remember that Simpson was in medical school two years before turning towards music in which he eventually obtained his doctorate. Fetal development continues until orchestral contractions occur and our infant explodes from the birth canal. Interestingly, the next so many years of postnatal development elapse with quicker tempos. This is definitely the perspective of an OB/GYN, not a pediatrician. The music of Symphony 6 sans program is extremely dynamic with wonderful climaxes and almost-beautiful softer, tenderer passages along the way. The 11th "movement" of 10+ minutes is fun to listen to because of the superbly exciting orchestration, but it doesn't really move me. The final section or movement is an all-too-brief 28 seconds of power-driven, glorious climax on a major chord.
Symphony 7 begins seriously. As in all of Robert Simpson's work, it demonstrates the composer's astonishing orchestration skills. BUT as in Symphony 6, I find it difficult to maintain a sense of staying with Simpson's flow of ideas. In other words, these symphonies lack a coherent design that his later symphonies (and even some of his earlier ones) convey.
The playing of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic is exemplary, and the sound could not be more vivid. On a musical basis, however, I can only RECOMMEND it.
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Ian Craft is one of England's foremost fertility specialists but also one of its most newsworthy characters. He stands beyond two standard deviations from the norm as a gynecologist. He implants viable ovum into the fallopian tubes of women more than 50 years of age. One of his most famous patients was 60 YEARS OLD! He charges so much that he gives himself a yearly salary of about 2.5 million British pounds. He has faced sanctions and charges several times for such infractions as charging one woman 125 Pounds for a 3-minute consultation during which the lady never even sat down.
Hyperion's cycles (they also recorded the complete string quartets, and various other Simpson pieces) are major and invaluable contributions to the composer's presence and recognition, and labors of love, with liner notes that are models of presentations and in-depth descriptions, refering to the many cue points that each symphony benefits from at every structural point. Yet I have doubts whether Vernon Handley is always the best advocate of Simpson's Symphonies. His recordings, when I first purchased the complete symphony cycle in the 1990s, certainly did not hamper enjoyment, or recognition of Simpson's stature. But I first became aware of his interpretive shortcomings when listening to the CD reissue, on EMI's "British composers" series, of Sir Adrian Boult's 1956 premiere recording of the first Symphony (3 Modern English Symphonies). Of course the 1956 mono sonics couldn't compare in spaciousness and comfort of Hyperion's digital recording (Simpson: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 8), and yet: the visceral impact, the bite, the orchestral presence were all on EMI's side. Furthermore, in comparison, the drive, the motoric energy were Boult's, Handley appeared terribly sluggish, and worse still, as I happen to have the score, I realized that he literally betrayed Simpson's carefully and brilliantly conceived architecture, by which the "Symphony in one movement" meant exactly that: in ONE movement, e.g. single and immutable pulse throughout, in which it is only the lengthening and shortening of note-values within that constant beat that gave the impression of slower or faster pacing.
It will remain to me an eternal source of incredulity that so many musicians, who otherwise profess the greatest respect for the composer's score and intentions, who would consider it anathema to change the pitches, the rhythms or doctor the orchestration, seem not to give a hoot about the score's tempi. And this is not menial matter. Double the woodwinds and you won't change anything substantial to the character and emotions of the music. Change a note here and there in the melody or harmony or slacken a rhythm, and chances are nobody will notice. But change the tempo, play slow when the composer meant it to be fast or the other way around, and you will radically change the message and emotions generated by the music. Sure there is a margin of interpretation when faced with such literary indications as "Allegro" - how fast is "Allegro"? But there is very little margin of interpration when there is a metronome indication. At least within the confines of the Newtonian universe, a second is a second, and so many beats per minute are not open to interpretation. Sure there can be adjustments given the hall's acoustics, and sure the conductor is not beating time with the eye on the metronome. Still, there is a range of acceptable variance showing that the performer has his mind on the composer's score and intention, or doesn't care. And then, there are the tempo relationships. Whatever the opening tempo adopted by the performer, even if it is inobservant of the composer's intentions, there are, as in Simpson's first Symphony all those occasions where the composer explicitly or implicitly demands a precise tempo relationship between sections or movements. Not observing shows that the performer doesn't give a d***n about the composer's carefully conceived architecture, and I find it difficult to take such interpreters entirely seriously, e.g. to consider that they seriously studied the score.
That said, to be entirely fair, I've had occasion to observe that Stravinsky himself, in his recordings of his own works, did not always observe the composer's carefully-conceived tempo relationships. But then, composer as performer isn't the same as performer. You can say that the composer interpreting his own work, if he is not observant of his own score, is still composing, or re-composing it, in act rather than in writing: those are, so to speak, his second thoughts about it. But not so with the interpreter, unless, of course, he's had specific instructions from the composer (which does happen).
And what is valid for Beethoven is even more with Simpson. With hundreds of recordings available of each work of Beethoven, not only is "interpretation" acceptable, it is necessary: nobody wants to hear hundreds of times exactly the same thing, and one welcomes the "alternate view", even when - or rather: "precisely because" it entirely changes the character of the music. And when the altenative view becomes standard, there is always the "Historically-Informed Performance" that will let you hear it as the composer arguably intended it.
But when you have only one recording? And would that the alternate or "inobservant" view be "better" than the composer's original intention. It is hard to judge on a single recording, because one must reconstruct in one's mind what the music might sound like played at the right tempi, and/or with the right sonics, and compare the actual recording and your imaginary sonic image of what it could have been. The imagination is at a disadvantage. But with Handley's First, we do have a comparison which shows that the inobservant view is NOT better.
And I happen to have also the score of the 7th, and a few observations are in order. First, the sonics: like those of the 1st Symphony, I find them comfortable, but too tame, and I can imagine, in my "mind's ear", the brass and woodwinds with a touch more glaring presence, the double-basses and timpani (for instance track 15 at 3:25) with more precise definition, and all, consequently, with more impact.
In matters of tempo, I find Handley less than ideal, but fortunately less exceptionable than in the First. The Symphony opens at 96 eighth-notes/mn and Handley's 93 is close enough. But then comes a "meno Mosso" notated "circa 72" (at 1:47 track 14) and Handley's 52 is way too slow, not just because it is slower than Simpson's metronome, but because it turns the passage into a "slow" section within the movement and stems the forward moentum and breaks the tension, which should be unrelenting. When, track 15 at 1:17, Simpson instructs to accelerate to 63 quarter-notes (126 eighth-notes), Handley goes up to an acceptable 60 that generates much excitement, although I can imagine even more at an even more breathless tempo. Then comes a long Adagio section (track 18), notated 66 quarter-notes/mn by Simpson and taken closer to 58-60 by Handley - but after all, it is an Adagio. But then, when comes the Allegro, track 20, normally still in the same beat of 66, but now half-notes/mn, Handley now steps up his tempo to 70 and rises occasionally to circa 80 (track 21). In itself it is fine, it does again generate great excitement, but shouldn't the Adagio have been paced faster, to keep at least a semblance of unity? But when comes the close to final "dopio meno allegro", track 22, with the same unity of beat of 66 quarter-notes, Handley does maintain a reasonable unity of tempo with his previous pacing.
Again, none of this hampered enjoyment when I first heard the Symphony, some years ago. What it does mean is that Handley's reading shouldn't be considered "definitive", although prospects of new recordings by other labels seem very unlikely. Hello, Sir Simon Rattle, are you receiving me? Until then, one may satisfy oneself with Handley and one's mind's ear.