Spring Symphonies: 15/60 Robert Simpson: Symphony No 4

You won’t hear this symphony in the concert hall, it hasn’t been played on Radio 3 since 2007 and there is only one recording of it - on Hyperion, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra are conducted by Vernon Handley. It was premiered in 1973 by James Loughran and the Halle orchestra.  This maybe the only symphony I include from the 1970s - it was a quite fallow time in British symphonic life - there were symphonies premiered but many like this one have made it to a recording and then languished.

I came to Robert Simpson not through his music but his writing - on Beethoven, Bruckner, Sibelius and Nielsen he was a most eloquent and simple guide especially to the harmonic landscape of their symphonies.  His BBC Guide to the Beethoven symphonies - a very slim volume says more than most learned articles and research papers for the thoughtful reader - it’s one of the most thumbed books in my collection.  His other great tome is his guide to Bruckner symphonies which takes us through each including the original editions - its a book that opens up Bruckner’s troubled genius and points up where his material is lacking - something a lot of commentators are reluctant to do nowadays.  He was also a powerful force at the BBC as a producer.  I came first to his Ninth Symphony a masterpiece but I think No 4 is more accessible.  Simpson also came up with my favourite musical quote - speaking after a performance on an Elgar symphony at the Royal Festival Hall he came out in a grumpy mood “I refuse to be addressed in that manner!” was his summation of Elgar’s language and one with which I wholeheartedly agree.

The Fourth symphony is described by some as his most Beethovenian - there are quotes from the symphonies - but I’m pretty sure it should be taken on it’s own terms.  Simpson was forever explaining his symphonies - something that is helpful at times but in his case I don’t think it helps on first acquaintance.  The symphony’s opening movement is after the briefest of flourishes quite introspective, full of a kind of pointillistic elaborated melodic material interrupted by climaxes which don’t fully resolve - a technique Nielsen sometimes uses.  The atmosphere is rather tense and getting tenser as the movement progresses. It’s  a great scene setter more than a movement of grand gesture - but full of material or moods which will come back later in the symphony.

The scherzo is a favourite: it's Promethean. As is often pointed out - not least by Simpson himself - it starts like the Scherzo in Beethoven’s Ninth with a one in a bar beat allowing the music to fizz along with a awkward angularity and complex rhythms that just serves to confuse the unwary, but on better acquaintance it all zips along with gusto, verve and humour.  It builds to various growing climaxes which are sometimes diverted - but when it goes off it seems to be eruptive like a volcano.  It loses force and builds to a jolly romp.  In a beautiful retrograde piece of deceleration Simpson abruptly changes direction the orchestra breaks out in a complete different mood with a soft simple tune from Haydn’s Symphony No 76: its a direct quote but it’s interrupted.  The contrast is witty and very effective.  The scherzo interrupts more and more and then takes over the serene Trio by force of character.  Its more frenzied than before but a great workout for the brain - a thematic cat and mouse game with a fantastic coda crowning it.

The long slow andante is elegant with a solo cello voice over succulent harmonies - there's a hint of the 20th century British school and Shostakovich here  - it's a familiar idiom in many ways but it wanders in unexplored shaded glades. The mood grows more traditional English with simple cells of music under a brief hall solo. Wind solos elaborate the next part - then brass chord resolved with that dissolving quality Hindemith loved so much. It circles slowly but ends in a quietude.

The finale Allegro vivace, winds itself up with a fancy precision, and once at full pelt, it surges and fires with insistent rhythms - reminding me of Hindemith. Pushing the counterpoint hard - we get to a step-wise series of climaxes and little change in the frenetic pace.  Its quite hard to keep track of the flow of time - that’s always a great thing in music I think.  A huge repetitive climax takes us back to the Scherzo and in the blink of an eye the symphony is over.  Terse to the last this magnificent exercise in coiling up the orchestra, metaphorically, until it bursts out blazing is a gem and shamefully undervalued.

No Youtube clip so you’ll have to get the CD where this symphony is coupled with Symphony No 2.


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