The current spate of exciting new symphonies by British composers such as Matthew Taylor and David Matthews might not have evolved without the example of the 11 symphonies of Robert Simpson (1921-1997). A BBC Radio producer (whose legacy includes rescuing the output of an even older symphonist, Havergal Brian), Simpson belied his gentle appearance by producing works of incredible weight, power and logic. His heroes were Carl Nielsen and Beethoven, not known for pulling their punches when it came to pumping out a fortissimo.
It is a tonic to revisit Simpson’s work, and respond once again to its strength and intricacy. In these first recordings, made for broadcast by the BBC at the time of the premieres (1972 and 1977 respectively), musical ideas unfold seamlessly – witness the journey from No 6’s mysterious opening to its final stupendous, almost cacophonic march. As punchy and challenging as Simpson’s music is, (try the Molto vivace scherzo of Symphony No 5), structural integrity is always paramount.
Andrew Davis’s performance of No 5 is not quite on a par with Vernon Handley’s 1994 Hyperion recording with the Royal Philharmonic, partly because Hyperion’s fuller sound allows more detail to be heard. (And the RPO play like fiends!) The Sixth, in two movements structured similarly to Nielsen’s Fifth, is led by that underrated conductor Sir Charles Groves. The sound quality is better for No 6, and Groves is superb at bringing salient orchestral lines into focus. I prefer Groves to Handley’s 1988 recording, but both are excellent. The power of Simpson’s music has not faded with time.
Work: Symphonies Nos 5 & 6
Performers: London Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Groves
Label: LYRITA SRCD389