Simpson Trio for horn, violin and piano

performed by Richard Watkins, horn; Pauline Lowbury, violin; Christopher Green Armytage, piano

(Sorry, no dice on YouTube for today’s piece, but if you want to preview it, you can do so at Hyperion’s page for the piece, whence comes much of my information about this work. It can also be found in iTunes [U.S. store]. Support music people, people.)

Well, we’ve only gotten to very little of Robert Simpson’s music so far, in fact, only one  piece prior to this one, but there’s more of his music on the way in another month or so. His music represents to me an astounding balance of driving power and intensity, but also depth and sensitivity, and his output embodies brilliant examples of a 20th-century approach to classical forms, most notably the symphony and string quartet, but much else.

So, then, I’m delighted to see that he has, included in that output, both a trio and quartet featuring the horn. There aren’t that many horn trios around. You might think Brahms’s (deservedly) famous work is the piece that started it all, but at least Czerny’s trio in E flat predates it by some decades.

In any case, Simpson’s trio “was commissioned by the Festival Trio of London (Frank Lloyd, Carol Slater and Anthony Halstead) with funds provided by The Arts Council of Great Britain. It was completed in September 1984, shortly before Simpson began work on his Ninth Symphony.” The precious little information I could find on this piece does come from Hyperion’s fantastic program notes, linked above, written by Matthew Taylor.

I will do my best to avoid simply quoting Taylor’s notes, but he brings up a few things about this piece that I think are central to Simpson’s writing style, especially later in his career. Bear with me for just a moment.

Think of Haydn or Beethoven and their use of thematic material. Back in those days, for some composers, the motif, or subject, was an entire melody, in some cases, fully formed, readily identifiable and grinning from ear to ear. Those composers would still fragment and do things to these themes or motifs, like invert them, retrograde them (that’s not really a verb), transpose them, etc., so that the result was related, but different. As time went on, this process became more…. how could you say it? Abstract? Nebulous? Broad? Whatever. In any case, in more modern times, we have thematic ideas that might still be key areas (C major, A minor, F# minor, whatever), but where something like a single interval plays the key role. Instead of working with entire themes and figures, we have as our characters some of the most fundamental building blocks of music. Simpson does things with these building blocks that you might not be able to recognize, even from repeated listening, but his music is often extremely organized, rigorous, well-structured, but also maybe the slightest bit intellectual for some listeners. The intensity of the music makes up for any overly cerebral appearances (which I frankly don’t see anyway).

Okay, so the trio. Taylor says that the composer insists that the work is “conceived very much as a ‘genuine trio'” where all three instruments are “respected” but none has spotlight, or control of the others. It might sound a bit too complimentary to say that I think of him as having the same inherent, almost spiritual, musicality as, say, Beethoven, but I do, and I think you hear it here. Taylor says:

As is typical of Simpson’s later music, the substance of the Trio evolves naturally from the power inherent in the basic intervals. Here minor thirds are significant, as well as semitonal clashes, usually created by contrapuntal lines crossing each other.

This is what I was talking about earlier. It’s the simplest things in the music that propel the entire piece, like the single burst of electricity (you’ll see the word “pulse” so much in discussion of Simpson’s music, even from the composer himself) that starts an unstoppable organic process. The work is in three sections that serve as movements, but without pause between them, and lasts around 18-19 minutes.

Simpson’s approach to separate movements is an interesting one. In many of his works, it seems, the delineations between movements are simply milestones along the same journey; instead of formal conclusion and stop/start again, it’s more like slowing down and rounding a corner on a mountain, or clearing a hill, revealing a new perspective on the landscape, maybe the same, maybe a new one, but the overall journey is continuous.

So where do we begin with this trio? A violin, carving out what might be the major intervals of the piece. Regardless, it lays down that initial pulse we’ll be working with, and the horn enters, accenting the offbeats, with wilder jumps against the more stable violin, with things eventually cooling off to make room for the piano’s entrance and a mysterious shadow it casts as it enters.

I swear I’m not going to do a play-by-play here, but the effect here, at least for me, is that the entires are staggered, one kind of passing the baton to the next to enter, but then after introducing one after the other, there are moments where they seem almost entirely independent. This approach may seem dryly academic to some ears, and I’ve read people’s sentiments online that Simpson’s music lacks melody, but his musical arguments are just as enticing as any melody, to me. The music unfolds, reveals itself.

In this first movement, the original pulse, the stirring energy of the beginning, is always there, but it ultimately succumbs or yields to a second, more lyrical theme, even though, as Taylor notes, this first movement does not adhere to sonata form. After the tension and release, the completion of at least one part of Simpson’s musical argument, with the tension waxing and waning, its the more expressive second idea that sets us up for the middle movement. The violin has a duet with the horn, in which the piano steps back, presenting a much more subdued, intimate, melancholy environment, with near-whispers for the horn. It’s phenomenally effective…

… and before we know it, we’ve entered the second movement proper. The horn is at times barely audible behind a solemn violin solo. It’s as if all the energy, the same spirit behind the energy of the first movement is still there, but now we’ve zoomed in, with everything expanded out, and can see and hear everything between the lines. It’s still, serene, but not peaceful. If you were searching for a melody to latch onto, here’s one for you, but it’s more than that, one long line, transferring from one instrument to another, or splitting into multiple contrapuntal lines and finding itself again, like individual threads. There are some moments of tension, but no real strains or sparks, and by the end of the movement, there seems, from somewhere, to be some kind of resolve, or closure, if I dare to use such a word.

And again, listen as the heartbeat of the final few seconds of the second movement quicken, carrying right over into the finale. Taylor says “The composer once described this movement as having ‘something of the character of a blunt Scherzo.'” There’s certainly a liveliness, a bounce to this finale that’s different from the raw energy of the opening of the piece. Perhaps it would be called the trio-ish section of this ‘blunt Scherzo’, but the central passage, where it seems the three instruments have gone off to brood in their own corners, to think by themselves for a while, is a simple yet stunning example of providing contrast while maintaining momentum. Or at least that’s what I think. The piano persists in its ostinato-like repetition of notes, and violin and horn sometimes fall into step with each other, another excellent example of music developing, unfolding, and of wonderful interaction between the instruments, a dizzying balance of voices and virtuosity, in all instruments but especially the horn. This finale is absolutely riveting.

There’s a kind of inherent musicality to Simpson’s music. It’s maybe a bit too intellectual for some listeners, and I say that not implying that I get what other people don’t. To be honest, I have the regular impression that I’m missing out on something, like watching n exquisitely filmed, riveting movie, but missing a large part of the plot, something you know would make the story much more riveting and coherent, but even without that crucial information, you can still enjoy it. That’s what I think, but there is depth, an intoxicating structure and logical approach to his music.

The final closing passages of this work, even if the rest of it didn’t thrill you, may just be exhilarating enough for you to want to take the whole ride over again, and that’s another quality, I think, about his music: it’s one big whole. You can’t listen to one section of it, one movement or passage, because it’s all contextual, it all fits in with everything else, and that kind of musical architecture is something I’m coming to love more and more.

Anyway, this was originally to be the end of our horn series, having skimmed through roughly two centuries of music for some outstanding chamber and concertante works for the horn, but we haven’t yet had a solo piece, so we’ll take care of that tomorrow. It’s even more recent in history than this work, and will certainly provide a challenge or twenty. It’s a small deviation from the very (intentional) English ending to this series, and what follows next week will be even more so, properly, so do please stay tuned. Thank you for listening, and for reading.

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