Simpson String Quartets 2 & 5

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Simpson String Quartets 2 & 5

  • String Quartet No. 5
  • String Quartet No. 2

Apologies for the sense of deja-lu, but here is yet another splendidly invigorating Robert Simpson issue. Like the July coupling of Nos. 3 and 6 it pairs a quartet from his first group of three with one from the trilogy paraphrasing Beethoven's Rasumovsky Quartets. And once again it is startling to discover such mastery in a comparatively early work. It shouldn't be that much of a surprise—Simpson was already in his thirties—but it does perhaps say something about this country's prolonged failure to pick up on a composer of major significance.
The single-movement Second Quartet starts charmingly, leaping like a fish in a clear stream (actually a high violin in A major), with an answering pulsation that will play a large part in propelling the music into less friendly waters, not least by means of a progressively knottier fugue. The slow middle section (in Simpson's favourite proportionally related metre) remarkably recasts the leaping figure as an expressive octave grace-note. The way back from this thoughtful state is not so straightforward as at first seems likely. Indeed it takes another wirey fugue to pull the music up by its bootstraps, and even then the sparks fly with such intensity that the quartet seems to burn itself out, ending with a reflective epilogue.
If this design owes a debt to the second movement of Nielsen's Fifth Symphony it balances the account somewhat with an extensive redistribution of elements and a generous deposit of its own spiritual capital. When emulation is more conscious, as in the Fifth Quartet which parallels Beethoven's Op. 59 No. 2 phrase by phrase (for the most part), some tricky issues arise. Has the model been so thoroughly absorbed that the resulting music has a life of its own (as do, for instance, Schubert's late A major Sonata finale, based on the corresponding movement of Beethoven's Op. 31 No. 1, or Goehr's Metamorphosis/Dance, based on the second movement of Op. 111)? Do we experience at least something of the reflected glory of the original?
Yes to both questions in the case of Simpson's Fifth. But it took me longer to reach that conclusion than with the Sixth Quartet. The Fifth is a very long piece. Each of the first two movements lasts 14½ minutes and sticks to Beethoven's scheme of repetitions—Simpson has even had the two structural repeats of the first movement printed out in full. By the second hearing, having adjusted to the fact that the themes take that bit more space than Beethoven's, I was at least beginning to relish their individuality and not worry about the sheer amount of repetition. But a Beethoven repetition usually feels like much more than that, because of its place in an unfolding musical drama (which, ideally, will inspire the performers to transforming nuances of their own), and I've yet to feel quite that way about Simpson's first two movements. In the Adagio I did wonder whether the players themselves could have helped with a more generous tonal variety (and good though the recorded sound is, a little more bloom would not do it any harm). Perhaps Simpson has asked for trouble by specifying sempre semplice here, as though explicitly to contradict Beethoven's con molto di sentimento—but there is an expressive dimension in which those markings are anything but contradictory, and I certainly wouldn't expect the Delme to play the Beethoven as plainly as they do the Simpson.
Probably these reservations are academic. The Delme have been playing these quartets for ten years now and can be trusted to do them justice. They certainly play superbly in the last two movements, both of which are exhilarating stuff. Simpson brilliantly recaptures the character of Beethoven's theme russe and he subordinates the repetition scheme to a process of ongoing interaction (pardon the jargon) in a way I rather wish he had done with the first movement. Beethoven's alla breve finale becomes a comparably energetic prestissimo 6/8 (shades of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony) as if paying the first movement back for having changed Beethoven's 6/8 to 4/4. I have tried, as yet unsuccessfully, not to hear the final E as dominant (it is clearly meant to be tonic) but again that's probably just my problem. Anyone who has caught the Simpson bug should find the malady pleasantly reinforced by this issue. But perhaps newcomers to the quartets would be better advised to start out with the Hyperion issues of Nos. 3 and 6 ( (CD) CDA66376, 7/90) or Nos. 7 and 8 ( (CD) CDA66280, 3/90).'

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