Robert Simpson’s Symphonies

0 of 5 stars

Symphony No.1 [1951]
Symphony No.2 [1955-56]
Symphony No.3 [1962]
Symphony No.4 [1970-72]
Symphony No.5 [1972]
Symphony No.6 [1977]
Symphony No.7 [1977]
Symphony No.8 [1981]
Symphony No.9 [1987]
Symphony No.10 [1988]
Symphony No.11 [1990]
Variations on a theme by Nielsen [1983]

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra [Symphonies 2, 4 & 9]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra [Symphonies 6, 7 & 10]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra [Symphonies 1, 3, 5 & 8]
Vernon Handley

City of London Sinfonia
Matthew Taylor [Symphony 11 & Nielsen Variations]

Symphonies 1-10 recorded between September 1987 and July 1996 in Wessex Hall, Poole Arts Centre, Dorset; Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool; and St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London
Symphony 11 and Nielsen Variations recorded in December 2003 in St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London

Reviewed by: Andrew Achenbach

Reviewed: February 2007
CDS44191/7 (7 CDs)
Duration: 7 hours 36 minutes

Hats off to Hyperion for such a sensibly priced and stylish repackaging of one of the great recording projects of the last two decades – the recording of the eleven symphonies of Robert Simpson (1921-1997)

In a superbly cogent and insightful booklet-essay newly commissioned for this slim-line box set Calum McDonald describes Robert Simpson’s cycle of symphonies as “surely one of the most imposing bodies of work of any British composer … Simpson is a symphonist of European stature, whose music deserves to be known the world over.”

It’s a claim fully borne out by contents of these seven CDs, all but one of which benefit from the outstandingly committed and clear-headed direction of Vernon Handley. Returning to Handley’s Royal Liverpool Philharmonic pairing of Symphonies 6 and 7 (both completed in 1977), which launched this recorded series nearly two decades ago, one is struck afresh by the pioneering zeal and selfless authority of the music-making; and the bracing Sixth makes as good an entry point as any into Simpson’s symphonic oeuvre, for its ineluctable growth and irresistible control of momentum never fail to astonish (as Lionel Pike has pointed out, the exuberant closing pages owe a debt to the finale of Schubert’s ‘Great C major’ Symphony).

The following year, the cycle reached arguably its pinnacle with the Ninth (1987), an uninterrupted 50-minute canvas of awesome organic power quite rivetingly performed by Handley and the Bournemouth SO on peak form and harnessed to a fascinating illustrated talk on the work by Simpson himself. This magnificent release deservedly went on to scoop a Gramophone Award.

Three years later, back in Liverpool, dedicatee Handley again covered himself with glory in the even lengthier (and, it must be said, rather more inscrutable) four-movement Tenth (1988). 1992 brought another highlight in the shape of Handley’s splendidly vital and dashing account of the pithy, poetic and good-humoured Second Symphony. Written in 1955-56 for Anthony Barnard and his London Chamber Orchestra, it employs forces identical to those found in the first two Beethoven symphonies and boasts a remarkable central palindromic Largo cantabile.

The Bournemouth SO strains every sinew both here and in the rollicking Fourth (1970-72), perhaps the most sheerly fecund, personable and avowedly Beethovenian of the canon. The odd frayed edge in Handley’s blockbuster 1994 coupling with the Royal Philharmonic of Symphonies 3 (1962) and 5 (1972) suggests that a little more session time would not have gone amiss but neither conception will leave the listener in any doubt that they have been taken on two of the twentieth-century’s most exhilarating symphonic journeys.

Composer Edmund Rubbra hailed Simpson’s No.2 (1951) as “a most remarkable work, not only as a First Symphony but a symphony. There is not a trace of diffidence in facing the issues of symphonic thought. The scoring is everywhere integrated with the music; by which I mean that the composer never introduces effects for their own sake. The score is first-rate because the music is first-rate, and I could give no further praise.” Handley lends eloquent advocacy to Simpson’s unbroken tripartite structure, albeit without entirely eclipsing memories of Sir Adrian Boult’s more thrustingly linear interpretation.

The titanic Eighth (1981) strikes me as yet another life-affirming Simpson masterwork, staggeringly rich in contrapuntal resource and fuelled by seemingly limitless reserves of energy. Handley and a valiant RPO maintain unflinching concentration from first measure to last.

CD 7 containing the marvellously sure-footed and luminously textured Eleventh (1990) and delightful Nielsen Variations (a BBC commission from 1983) came out as recently as December 2004. Composer-conductor Matthew Taylor (to whom No.11 bears a dedication) directs the City of London Sinfonia and does a terrific job, all the more praiseworthy considering he prepared the Variations at just four days’ notice (Handley was to have conducted but a car accident in Munich put paid to that).

This last disc was dedicated to the memory of Hyperion’s indefatigable founder Ted Perry and forms a handsome conclusion to a towering achievement for everyone involved.

Now, I wonder whether Hyperion will similarly re-house its exemplary series of Simpson’s 15 string quartets?

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