Robert Simpson – A Centenary Release on Lyrita – Symphonies 5 & 6

Robert Simpson - Symphonies Nos 5 + 6
4 of 5 stars

Symphonies – No.5 (1972)*; No.6 (1977)**

*London Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Davis

**London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Charles Groves

Premiere performances at Royal Festival Hall, London on *3rd May 1973 and **8th April 1980

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: February 2021
Duration: 72 minutes



The coming centenary of Robert Simpson’s birth (March 2nd) will hopefully see releases of a handful of works not yet recorded, but archival issues are always welcome when as significant as this from Lyrita – bringing together the first performances of two Symphonies that, in their different ways, find the composer at his most characteristic. Such premieres were all too often unsatisfactory, given the fraught scheduling of British orchestras, but these audibly convey the stature of the work at hand along with the authority of the conductors who presided over them.

Most obviously in the Fifth Symphony with the London Symphony, a premiere following on from that of its predecessor (in Manchester by the Hallé and James Loughran) by just a week. Composed in the wake of serious illness, it marks a decisive move in Simpson’s output away from music where long-range tonal resolution is uppermost to one centred on the evolutionary potential of motifs and intervals. So, the softly ambivalent string chord that opens and closes the work serves as both structural and emotional focal-point – underpinning the visceral outer allegros as keenly as that of the speculative progress in the ‘Canone’ movements they enclose; only the hectic accumulation and dispersal of the central ‘Scherzino’ standing outside of this concept. Such interplay between stasis and dynamism is unerringly gauged by Andrew Davis, who sustains tension across the work’s unbroken span rather more consistently than Vernon Handley in his studio realisation with the Royal Philharmonic (Hyperion). What a pity this performance had to be ‘bootlegged’ throughout those intervening forty-eight years up to the present.

If the premiere of the Sixth Symphony does not reach such a level of excellence, it is no mean take on a piece which ranks with Simpson’s most immediately compelling. Once compared to a latter-day Pastoral this single movement – whose two continuous parts chart a course from conception to birth, then infancy to maturity – is closer to The Rite of Spring, yet without that work’s destructive connotations. Charles Groves ensues the first part maintains a cumulative thrust through to its elemental climax – the pivoting between expectancy and activity keenly conveyed; and though what follows loses focus on occasion, the commitment of the London Philharmonic (who had evidently begun rehearsal the day before the performance) can hardly be doubted. Handley’s studio recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Hyperion), incorporating revisions such as ensure greater cohesion and with a more purposeful overall momentum, is to be preferred, yet, as this account heads to its surging peroration, the impact of Simpson’s wholly affirmative take upon the evolutionary process still carries all before it.

As taken from the BBC broadcasts, the sound has unfailing clarity if not much in the way of perspective; hard to believe this is the Royal Festival Hall acoustic in both instances. Jürgen Schaarwächter’s booklet introductions focus on anecdotal detail and (rightly) draw on the composer’s programme notes as regards the music.

A further disc of symphonic premieres (maybe the aforementioned Fourth with Brian Wright’s account of the Seventh?) might hopefully be possible, but this ‘Centenary Release’ is clearly an essential purchase for Simpson devotees.

Further information at

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