Simpson String Quartet no. 4

performed by the Delmé Quartet, available digitally basically nowhere but the iTunes store or Hyperion

(cover image by Serge Kutuzov)

Ah, Robert Simpson, the real inspiration behind the Editor’s Choice series, and someone I discovered just by digging through forums and lists and Wikipedia articles. He has a very particular sound, one I think is readily identifiable once you know it, and while he may not be to everyone’s taste, I feel his music is an exquisite achievement in bringing the classical traditions of music into the modern era while really entirely avoiding the avant-garde (to which I am not at all opposed).

His fourth of 15 string quartets dates from 1973, more than two decades after the first, and is the beginning of a series of three quartets, as Matthew Taylor writes at Hyperion, “written as extended variations on the three Beethoven Rasumovsky Quartets, Op 59,” which we (not accidentally) recently finished considering. It may behoove you, dear reader, to know that Simpson was an eloquent, lucid writer on Beethoven’s music (the kind of writer who uses words), showing not only an understanding of but a great passion for the master’s works. That being said, the ‘variations’ statement here could use some clarification, which Taylor gives:

…it is crucial to emphasize that neither the intention nor the result is stylized pastiche, nor does Simpson expect the listener to search for immediate parallels by closely scrutinizing each bar of the Beethoven whilst listening to his three quartets. The parallels are of a general kind throughout, but are always highly illuminating, not only demonstrating Simpson’s profound love and deep understanding of Beethoven’s masterpieces, but also showing his strong spiritual affinity for the German composer.

I feel that once you appreciate that ‘spiritual affinity’ and see how Simpson conveys his adoration for Beethoven’s music, you understand Simpson. His is absolute music, pure and simple, in the manner of, say, Brahms, but in contrast with many 20th century composers, is not (to my ear) pedantic or cerebral, as some would claim. It’s thrilling music for music’s sake.

The work was dedicated to Basil Lam, “the great Bach scholar.” Like all quartets in Beethoven’s Rasumovsky set, it is in four movements, as follows, with a duration of about 41 minutes:

  1. Allegro
  2. Presto
  3. Andante sostenuto
  4. Assai vivace

Taylor’s notes, suitably, continue to draw parallels with Beethoven’s first of the three op. 59 quartets. Again, being (pretty intimately) familiar with that work will give you thrilling insights into what Simpson accomplishes here without being derivative or plagiaristic.

“Like the Beethoven, Simpson’s quartet opens with a sonata-allegro that presents a rising cello melody later answered by the first violin as a crescendo is built.” Those are the kinds of parallels we’re talking about here. Simpson’s music is, to me, notable for having this propulsive element to it; even when the music isn’t tense or cinematically exciting, there’s always a sense of motion, progress, development, constantly working in some way toward a goal, and that’s about as much as I’ll say about the first movement because it can actually be very simple to appreciate. Listen for the first four notes from the cello: that figure is key to this first movement, quickly echoed by a violin. Then listen for the moment (I’d say you really can’t miss it) when the atmosphere changes and we arrive at a contrasting, softer theme. This is the material of our first (and actually shortest) movement. Enjoy.

The second movement is our scherzo, as you should be able to guess. Taylor tells us:

Beethoven’s second movement is one of his most unusual scherzi, both in form and manner. Consequently, Simpson preferred to allude to its tonal structure (including its prominent use of repeated notes) rather than imitate its mood and pace.

There’s another parallel, though, as “Both movements begin with solo viola playing an isolated rhythm on B flat.” There’s obviously no mistaking one for the other. Simpson, again, is not imitating or memorializing Beethoven in any way, but these little parallels are interesting starting points. We can see how different the tone of the two scherzi are, with Simpson’s presenting an intense, brisk movement, with pastoral glimpses here and there when the bustle subsides. It is fascinating to hear how this movement orbits so closely around a few basic ideas, and yet manages to maintain its intensity and freshness throughout.

The third movement Andante is the longest movement yet, and it’s here that Simpson deviates from some of his Beethovenian cues. Taylor says that:

Simpson was eager to avoid the funereal overtones of Beethoven’s adagio, so he decided to compose a slow movement at a slightly quicker tempo, an andante, whose emphasis is more on plaintive lyricism, though there are passionate outbursts of extreme power at climactic moments.

The quiet third movement moves without pause to the finale, also a sonata form movement, and the longest of the work. Again, you’ll hear some figures and shapes that continue to appear here and there throughout the movement, and there’s plenty of a sort of crossed-swords excitement. You can hear the tug of war. Taylor says that Simpson makes “deliberate play with the rivalry of the two conflicting keys, F and D.”

You perhaps, like me, do not have perfect pitch, and also like me, may be terrible at identifying this business of keys and tonal centers and stuff, but even if you can’t distinguish clearly the two keys Simpson is working with here, the conflict should be palpable, and it’s interesting to note that the keys are a minor third apart, not a perfect fifth like would be expected in many sonata form movements, although it’s by no means unprecedented.

The development whirs around these familiar ideas, but for all the tension in the work, something happens that may seem odd. As Taylor puts it:

Like Beethoven’s, Simpson’s last movement slows down towards the end to make an expressive point of the gentle tension between F and D, though Simpson’s adagio interlude is more extended and penetrates deeper. This might well be because greater relaxation is needed to offset the more radical tonal contest.

Like I said, there’s no mistaking this music for Beethoven, but the same sort of drama is at play. As the longest movement in this quartet, we have room for the kind of cooling off and the coda and all that it brings with it, as if we’ve returned to the andante, only to explode at the very end and determine who the victor is. Again, if like me, you can’t tell who it is, it’s the key of F.

Simpson’s music always has purpose, and this more-than-40-minute quartet bears that out, I think. The draw of this piece isn’t that it’s moving or stirring in the same way as a maudlin, gushy (but very pretty) Tchaikovsky piece, but it is very enjoyable to listen to, and far more fascinating, in my humble little opinion.

That’ll be it for now, but we’ll see a bit more Simpson this week(end), so stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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