Simpson String Quartet no. 5

performed by Delmé Quartet, available on iTunes or from Hyperion

(cover image by Paul Morris)

Robert Simpson’s fifth string quartet dates from 1974 and is the second of the three quartets (4-6) that make up a small set of quartets with Beethoven’s three op. 59 quartets as their foundation. We discussed this in last weekend’s article about Simpson’s fourth quartet, but Matthew Taylor gives a little more insight into the impetus for this little cycle of Beethoven-inspired quartets:

It was suggested to Simpson at the time that he ought to write a book about the Beethoven Quartets, but he preferred to see what he could learn by means of music rather than words. The resulting works are not pastiche or slavish imitation; they are expressed in Simpson’s strongly individual language and amount to extended essays in variation, each Quartet being a variation on a whole work.

That’s pretty cool.

I’ll say that, in keeping with so many of my other articles, I won’t be sharing anything of real…. academic or educational interest in this article, or at least I feel that way, especially because there is clearly so very much going on in this work that I want to understand, and I’m sure both you and I could if only I had the time, and a score in front of me, but I have neither. There are some things Taylor points out in his program notes on Hyperion, though.

For one, I think this work is a brilliant example of how a piece can draw you in, reveal its layers as it unfolds or blossoms, and what may at first seem at best somewhat interesting, or even odd, becomes fascinating, mesmerizing as you begin to appreciate it more.

The work is in four movements, as follows, with a playing time of about 44 minutes:

  1. Allegro molto
  2. Adagio, sempre semplice
  3. Allegretto vivace
  4. Prestissimo

The first two movements each make up about a third of the playing time of this work. They’re big chapters, and indeed Taylor tells us that this work “is the most substantial of the three” of the Beethoven-inspired quartets. The piece is dedicated to Angela Musgrave, who the composer would later marry.

What parallels are there to Beethoven’s op. 59 no. 2? For one, all four movements of the piece are in either E major or E minor. The structure of the first movement is unique, with each section (exposition, development, recapitulation) being repeated, which is certainly part of the reason for its length; Simpson deviates a bit from Beethoven’s structure for the scherzo as well as the mood of the finale, but again, these are not imitations or reboots.

I feel like the first movement is one of the most compelling, convincing things I’ve heard in a while. As Beethoven parallels go, the opening reminds me a bit of the ‘grand fugue.’ This is a dense, busy movement, and for the repeats of each individual section, I don’t feel it’s repetitive at all. In fact, even though I can’t quite tie all the pieces together, there’s this clear sense that things are familiar. I have the nuts and bolts of what’s developing and how, but like an archaeological dig, I just have the general form; I lack the fine tools and brushes to uncover the intricate detail. Be that as it may, the movement is propulsive and grand and encompassing, with clear figures running like threads through the movement, stitching everything together.

The second movement, in the Delmé recording, is one second longer than the first. Taylor emphasizes the softer sense of this movement after the turbulent first, and indeed, it begins delicately, even mournfully, maybe bringing something like Barber’s adagio to mind, but it’s not just all soft, sweet melancholy. “There are many passionate outbursts and considerable tension at times, but always soothed in some way,” Taylor says, and we should expect this from Simpson by now. He’s not about just a pretty tune, and on the scale of this slow movement, there’s certainly plenty to explore, with great conflict generated in broader ways than the first movement, but effective nonetheless. Just beautiful. In fact, Taylor praises it as “one of the most impressive quartet slow movements of this century.”

The scherzo is by far the shortest movement of the quartet, at under five and a half minutes, but it too packs a punch. Taylor tells us that “Like Beethoven’s Scherzo, Simpson’s is an Allegretto, and its first section is relaxed.” I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that second part, though. To me, the semi-polite bounce of this first theme strikes me as a little nervous in places. It’s hushed but still a little hurried. Granted, it’s far more subdued than the “barbed-wire counterpoint with a violent swing of tonalities that takes on an almost nightmarish ferocity” that will soon result. Even in this five-minute movement, Simpson is able to present themes with such wonderful character, contort and wring a wealth of material from them, producing a breathtaking, disproportionate amount of energy.

The finale is a frenzy from the get-go, without the lighter humor of Beethoven’s finale. The piece is roaring from the first bar, and not only do we have two contrasting subjects, but the key areas of C and E (minor, in this case) are pitted against each other. The softer second subject is certainly a moment of peace from the tempestuous opening, but even here it’s nervous and hurried. This is the Simpson of the symphonies, the unrelenting, exhilarating push toward a musical conclusion that only comes by way of much musical struggle, but in the most absolutely exhilarating way possible.

Give a few dedicated listens to this quartet, at the very least the outer movements, and see if you can’t pinpoint the basic building blocks, be they certain themes or shapes, key areas, changes of mood, and see how masterfully the composer weaves everything together. I swear, his works, quartet or symphony or otherwise, are some of the most comprehensive, weighty, generously rich compositions of the 20th or any century. Give them a listen.

Well, we’re done with our Editor’s Choice for a time, and we’re going to move on to someone we will be seeing a lot of in the next few months and into next year, so do stay tuned for that and thank you so much for reading.

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