Robert Simpson & Wolfgang Rihm

Two Other Movements [UK premiere]
Symphony No.5

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reinbert de Leeuw

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 November, 2005
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

Some of the most interesting musical events in London have long taken place at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, the home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This concert brought together two substantial works composed at a distance of over three decades, and with each making considerable (though very different) demands of the forces required.

Wolfgang Rihm has long seemed to be intent on a stylistic synthesis of all that might be termed the ‘Austro-German’ tradition. His recent clarinet trio, Gesangstuck, proved a persuasive revival of the Brahmsian archetype – compared with which, Two Other Movements (2004) may be attempting more but, in terms of a coherent overall entity, achieves considerably less. Whether the ‘movements’ in question continue from others is unclear; indeed, where these two movements actually conjoin is far from uncertain. A spectral pizzicato passage that emerges around the 26-minute mark suggests something of a structural division along the ‘golden section’ principal, but this is mere conjecture.

Otherwise, the work unfolds as spans of greater or lesser harmonic and rhythmic intensity, yet with little of an encompassing momentum to suggest any greater formal focus than that of one stage following another in the course of a general flux – though one tired of the claustrophobic textures and over-wrought rhetoric long before the conclusion was reached. The piece(s) lasts 40 minutes. The spirit of mid-1950s Henze (Fourth Symphony) hangs heavily over much of the musical content, though without a comparable vein of Italianate fantasy to temper the otherwise unrelieved earnest and dogged discourse. If this is Rihm’s idea of what constitutes a ‘new simplicity’ in German music, he might do well to reconsider. No claim was made for a UK premiere … but it must have been!

The BBC Symphony Orchestra did well to clarify the turgid textures and gritty sonorities with which the work abounds, and Reinbert de Leeuw kept a firm hand on Rihm’s tortuous logic – with little sense that the piece was headed other than where intended. Not music one would directly have associated with this champion of such antithetical Modernists as Ligeti and Louis Andriessen – but more so than the late Robert Simpson, whose Fifth Symphony duly comprised the second half of this concert.

Although Simpson’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies were completed in the same year – 1972 – and premiered in adjacent weeks, they each represent strikingly different facets of Simpson’s symphonic thinking. Whereas the former attempts to revitalise the four-movement archetype through the deployment of conflicting tonalities, the latter virtually reinvents the genre by focussing on the generative power inherent in sequences of intervals to evolve a continuous musical span; one whose five movements exhibit extremes of stasis and dynamism which are, in turn, underpinned by vast cumulative tension and release. Whether or not it is this sense of a radical symphonic blueprint that drew de Leeuw to the piece, he confronted its challenge head on – with the ‘ur-chord’ (which remains in the mind’s ear for the whole work) setting up a speculative premise that the Allegro cancels out in explosive fashion.

Either side of the central ‘Scherzino’ (Simpson’s shortest but hardly his least considerable symphonic movement), whose amassing of energy over a stuttering rhythm threatened though failed to undo ensemble unanimity, come two ‘Canone’ movements that each inhabits a very different calm. The firstevolves as a mesh of imitative woodwind entries – in context an intermezzo, but in no sense a ‘slow movement’, which is how it emerged in what was de Leeuw’s only real interpretative miscalculation. The second is more evidently a means to an end in the underlying argument – one that builds intently in momentum over its ominously regular pulse, until the finale literally blows the accumulated tension apart. A process that was realised here with precision, and de Leeuw showed his appreciation of the bigger picture by allowing a ‘give’ in the pacing of this lengthy movement so its overall velocity can be experienced by degree – climaxing in fragmentary gestures (the final trumpet-timpani volley needing slightly more emphasis) in the face of the now returned, though, in reality, never absent ur-chord.

This was undoubtedly the most convincing performance that the work has had since the second of Sir Andrew Davis’s accounts 22 years ago (with the Philharmonia Orchestra; Davis conducted the premiere with the LSO). Reinbert de Leeuw had the measure of a piece he will hopefully tackle on future occasions, and one would confidently recommend the Eighth Symphony to his attention. A final thought: 2006 marks the 85th-birthdays of both Simpson and Sir Malcolm Arnold, and a pairing of their respective Ninth Symphonies within the same concert would be a ‘double-bill’ like few others.

  • Simpson to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 6.30 p.m. on Sunday 4 December; Rihm scheduled for early 2006 in “Hear and Now”

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