Simpson: Symphony No. 3

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 7

Will Robert Simpson’s music survive into the 21st century? Some of it is very well-made, the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Symphonies in particular. But just as much of it is pedantic, dry, and lacking both melodic and timbral allure. The problem stems from Simpson’s method, which is based on the conflict between contrasting tonal centers and often includes self-conscious devices (canon, musical palindromes, fugues) that need not be “self-conscious” at all but somehow always manage to be when Simpson uses them. In short, he tends to compose on paper, and his various writings describe very well what he thinks he is doing. It’s just that sometimes the music, gray and resolutely gritty, seldom sounds like anything much at all, never mind what he describes.

The oft-mooted comparison to Carl Nielsen is instructive: Nielsen articulates his progressive tonal structures in terms of arresting thematic ideas, and the organizational principle serves the music’s larger expressive purpose. Simpson’s music, on the other hand, is all process: it’s like a machine whose visible guts and gears are so prominent and noisy that they make you forget what it is the bloody thing is supposed to do. Take the Third Symphony. Its first movement, we are told, is based on the conflict between the notes B-flat and C. Is there any reason these two notes should be in conflict? Is there any reason why we should care? Not as Simpson frames his argument, which is as a pedantic exercise in sonata form, devoid of the memorable melodic material that would assist the listener in following the evolving tonal conflict.

In short, the work is boring. Given its expressive inhibitions, there’s little point in trying to assess Horenstein’s interpretation, except to say that Vernon Handley’s competing version on Hyperion is both better played and better recorded. Horenstein was a true second-rater: only interesting in music that few others were recording at the time, and demonstrably inferior to just about any competition as soon as it arrived. His habitual stiffness and sloppiness is less of an issue with this work because Simpson rarely calls upon the conductor to execute major shifts in tempo or make expressive points. Even the symphony’s second movement, which purportedly accelerates from adagio to presto, retains a steady pulse throughout, irrespective of what happens on its musical surface. So Horenstein gets through it, and so does the LSO.

The Clarinet Quintet, five minutes longer than the symphony, sounds about five times duller absent the opportunities for contrast offered by the orchestral medium. The Aeolian Quartet and soloist Bernard Walton play efficiently, given what they have to work with. It doesn’t sound like they’re having much fun. As I said previously, Simpson did write some good music. His method never really changed, but sometimes his pre-conceived ideas really did work in real time. Having lived with his music for several decades, beginning with this very symphony on its original Unicorn LP, I can say with complete sincerity that his garrulous, cranky idiom isn’t likely to grow on you. It either works or it doesn’t. Here, alas, it largely doesn’t, and the few ear-catching and evocative moments along the way only beg the question of why there aren’t many more of them.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Symphony No. 3: Handley (Hyperion)

ROBERT SIMPSON - Symphony No. 3; Clarinet Quintet


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