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Robert Simpson Symphony No 3 & Clarinet Quintet


NMC RECORDS NMC D109 [TT: 66 mins] (originals Unicorn 1970)


The music of Robert Simpson is not ‘difficult' (says Martin Anderson in the sleeve note) but it does demand attention. And such attention is powerfully rewarded, giving that listener (almost) immediate rewards.

I first came across Simpson's music at a concert in 1960/61 season in the Royal Festival Hall when the First Symphony was conducted by Stanley Pope. Sadly, I did not like it much and went home slightly bemused.


Some thirteen years later I was given a recording of the Third Symphony which I eagerly took home; I was seldom more thrilled by a ‘new' piece of music. By this time I had forgotten my first ‘encounter' and my mind was more open.


The monumental Third Symphony (c. 31 minutes) receives phenomenal orchestral playing by the London Symphony Orchestra under Horenstein (one of the composer's favourite musicians) during its late sixties/early seventies heydays. The musicians play like demons and the listener's emotions are flung about in all directions.


Simpson always eschewed anything sentimental, and he also appeared to dislike certain instruments, such as the harp. However, he channelled his crystal clear thoughts into orchestral dimensions of equal clarity and when he created a musical climax – everyone knows about it. The Symphony uses a normal sized symphony orchestra but with 3 flutes (each doubling on piccolo). Cast in two great blocks of sound, there is plenty of conflict as bits of material are tossed around in the contest between tonalities (B flat and C). The orchestration is always interesting, always potent. There are some moments of shattering explosiveness and others of great quiet.

The second movement is a great accelerando growing (seemingly) from nowhere and eventually rising to an enormous chord on the orchestra sounding like something terribly ‘new' – yet it turns out to be the C major dominant seventh – in root position!


Hearing this recording once more in its new compact disc garb shows just how marvellous the original analogue recording was. This is an absolute MUST for anyone who wishes to hear one of the world's great orchestras at its very finest.


The new recording would deserve unqualified recommendation but for one sad thing marring the fill-up. On my review copy, the movements of the Quintet (described as being in one continuous movement falling into five main sections) are most annoyingly disturbed by breaks. This should not have happened. Of course, a few moments into the new movement one is again swept into the stream of things and the annoyance disappears. Until the next time.


This would not put me off listening to the disc for the actual performances of both works are so wonderful. Sometimes mellifluous, sometimes pithy, the playing of one of the country's greatest clarinettists – Bernard Walton – is an absolute must for Simpson aficionados. The booklet is excellent for the superb musical description by Hugh Ottoway and a biographical note by Martin Anderson – both long-time friends of the composer.

Dennis Day


© Peter Grahame Woolf