Photograph of Robert Simpson
Serenade for strings
Adagio Tribute to R.S.
Flute Concerto No.1
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.S. Bach [London premiere]
Jennifer Stinton (flute)
City of London Sinfonia conducted by Matthew Taylor
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 29 January, 2002
Venue: St Johns, Smith Square, London
An attractive and absorbing concert of works for string orchestra, presented in a sequence that brought out the contrasts, yet also the similarities between their composers.
Elgar’s Serenade dates from 1892 at the outset of his maturity (and which, as Matthew Taylor’s programme note reminded, had its provenance several years earlier); already there’s the characteristic Elgarian hallmarks of pathos and nostalgia. The opening ’Allegro’ was winsomely rendered, while the ’Larghetto’ – its long-breathed opening phrase looking forward to the Cello Concerto almost three decades hence – was the more moving for being taken at a flowing tempo; likewise the finale, which ties together the thematic strands of the work with satisfying unity.
Robert Simpson (1921-1997) was a composer with whom Taylor enjoyed a close friendship for many years; the latter’s Adagio – Tribute to R.S. was a highlight of the Simpson memorial concert given at St. John’s in September 1998. Originally written for string quartet, a medium Simpson considerably enriched over the course of his composing career, the piece sounds well in the transcription for string orchestra. Its seven minutes evoke the sustained intensity of Simpson’s own adagio movements; the music’s harmonic and textural qualities are very much Taylor’s.
Malcolm Arnold’s 1954 Flute Concerto was an admirable foil – animated and capricious in the outer movements, wistful in the central ’Andante’, the harmonic astringency of the string writing gives the music an emotional ambivalence which Arnold was to intensify, but not necessarily deepen, in later works. Jennifer Stinton gave an insightful account, virtuosic and thoughtful in equal measure, Taylor an accompanist of real empathy.
The remaining works constitute Simpson’s output for string orchestra. The Allegro Deciso is a transcription, apparently made at the suggestion of Walter Goehr, of the second movement of Simpson’s Third Quartet (1954), and among the earliest of the striving, Beethovenian allegros that feature prominently in his output. Powerfully integrated in its rhythmic and melodic follow-through, the string orchestra gave added definition to its intricate contrapuntal writing, especially in so coherent and focused an account as here.
The Variations and Fugue on a Theme of J.S. Bach (1991), premiered by Taylor and the Goldberg Ensemble at the 1995 Malvern Festival, is a substantial, 27-minute work which rightly occupied the whole of the second half. The theme, from the ’Sarabande’ of the Fifth Cello Suite, is subjected to thirteen variations that transform its melodic and rhythmic components beyond recognition. If something of the inevitability and control found in earlier Simpson variation sets is lacking, and the closing Fugue is more a fugal fantasy in its abrupt changes of mood and pace, the tonal and textural range finds the composer pursuing intriguing new possibilities. Like the Eleventh Symphony and Fifteenth Quartet, this is Simpson at his most diverse and equivocal. The CLS strings stumbled a little in their articulation of some of the faster variations, but the final two variations were serenely eloquent, while the fugue’s considerable energy was tellingly released in the ethereal closing bars, where the Bach theme returns as an almost spectral presence.
An imaginative and rewarding concert, a reminder of Taylor’s ability across a wide repertoire and of the conviction he instils in performers. His partnership with the City of London Sinfonia is one that will hopefully continue.
Forthcoming performances of Matthew Taylor’s music:
- Four Lullabies [world premiere – Alexander Piano Quartet], 12 March, Blackheath Halls, London SE3 (020 8318 9758) www.blackheathhalls.com
- Overture – The Needles [Lambeth Orchestra/Christopher Fifield], 23 March, St. Luke’s Church, West Norwood, SW2
- Cello Sonata [world premiere – Raphael Wallfisch & John York], 21 April, Blackheath Halls) www.blackheathhalls.com