Simpson String Quartet no. 3

performed by the Delmé Quartet

(cover image by Cassie Boca)

We will in due course get to the composer’s fourth, fifth, and sixth quartets, which are their own trilogy with a spiritual connection to Beethoven’s three Razumovsky quartets. This third quartet today, though, completes its own, maybe less well defined, trilogy with the first two. (Again, the above video is just a sample of the album from Hyperion; you’ll have to purchase it from iTunes or somewhere to hear it, but I highly recommend it.)

The first quartet conflicts in keys, and its finale leads directly to the second, which has a more compact, single-movement conflict centering around major vs. minor. As discussed yesterday, Simpson’s second finishes in the minor key, preparing us for the opening of today’s work, the third.

The work is dedicated to Dorothy Hemming, the violist of the Element Quartet. It, like the first quartet, is in two movements. Matthew Taylor, again at Hyperion, tells us that it “traces a clear progression from C to E.”

Again, as we’ve discussed before (i.e., yesterday), Simpson does such a stupendous job of generating conflict with such an economy of material, pitting simple ideas or motifs or key areas (usually both of the latter) against each other.

The work begins with an “elegiac” viola solo (played at the premiere, probably, by the dedicatee), as sort of a continuation of the somber mood of the second quartet’s finish. The first movement is marked ‘Con duolo a tenerezza,’ (‘mourning’ and ‘tenderness’). This relatively simple melody is followed by a “more chromatic, melancholy idea, announced by the first violin soon after against sustained lines on lower strings.” The viola solo then emerges as a synthesis of both these ideas, in much the way the third ‘cantabile’ theme of the second quartet was kind of a result of the first two subjects.

There’s something about this writing that, to me, is so distinctive to Simpson. In listening to how the movement progresses, there are a few things that stand out, more and more with each listen, as exquisite qualities of his music, and they’re especially noticeable here in a quartet. For one, his music is never ‘atonal’ or anything (even though he did experiment with some twelve-tone works that he later destroyed; definitely not his thing). He is squarely, staunchly, in the Romantic idiom, and we can hear his talent for a poignant melody in the opening. It’s not Tchaikovsky or something from Beethoven’s violin sonatas; it meanders and mourns, but it’s memorable and engaging. The second theme, which the violin introduces, is noticeably much more chromatic, as Taylor says, and adds a splash of dissonance, of interesting color to the tonal palette of the work, and with these simple details, the work progresses magnificently.

I find that violin phrase, a more poignant expression, to be very memorable, something that stands out perhaps most strongly in this first movement. The music seems to meander a bit, but in a larger sense, it is always going somewhere, and reaches heights of complexity and intensity without losing the clarity from the beginning.

The second movement is in sonata-allegro form, and yet again pits ideas against each other. Remember how I said yesterday that Simpson and many who discuss his music give little monikers to his motifs? Well, Taylor tells us that “a thrusting motive on violin and cello” is pitted against “repeated open fifths on second and viola.” The latter phrasing doesn’t sound so catchy, but that’s what we’re working with in this second and slightly longer movement.

The open fifths appear first in this movement, marked ‘Allegro deciso’ and it certainly is decisive. I don’t know that I’d use the word ‘thrusting’ but there’s certainly, in contrast with the soft mournfulness of the first movement, a propulsive drive. Even here, then, we have a strong juxtaposition, only two movements, with strong contrast between them. In another way, there’s conflict in the way the quartet is divided into teams, or pairs.

Something else, though, that is fascinating about this work, is how it seems to evolve, and yet stay the same, to be static and dynamic. There’s a fascinating quieter passage after the big introduction, but it’s still busy. The volume goes down, but the energy stays up, as if we’re hearing the same thing from a distance, and this almost increases the tension of the movement, as we know it’s going to come back, but even in this process is already changing.

Obviously, there’s lots of change in the development, but Taylor says that “The repeated notes become more insistent until the original fifths reappear marking the beginning of the recapitulation, yet even here the music is continually evolving.” The movement does come back to life in a grand way, yet another evidence of Simpson’s superb management of tension and release.

You don’t really need to know the nuts and bolts of the subjects, exposition, development, recapitulation, and all that, but identifying what’s at work and how the movement moves forward from a given point is enough. If you’re into that sort of thing, and I can see how you would be, it could be very enjoyable to pull out a score and analyze the work. Some accuse Simpson of being outrageously pedantic in his music, but I wouldn’t agree. You don’t have to get all of it to enjoy the piece.

The final gestures of this third quartet give us a satisfying close to this first trilogy of quartets, spanning only a couple of years. We see similar approaches in things like the generation of conflict, resolution, and maybe even can begin to identify a particular ‘Simpson sound’ but thankfully I don’t find any of these works to be derivative or redundant, which is exciting. We’ve got a dozen more to enjoy, but we’ll take our time and savor them. I want to do the Razumovsky quartets before we look at Simpson’s homage to them. We have one more Simpson work to enjoy next week, so please stay tuned for that. It is an exceptional one. Thanks so much for reading.


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