Originally published on February 24
Notwithstanding Hyperion’s herculean efforts on behalf of Robert Simpson’s music (including recording all Eleven Symphonies, Vernon Handley conducting the first ten, Matthew Taylor the Eleventh), this centenary offering from Lyrita of Simpson’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in their premiere performances courtesy of BBC broadcasts should not be glossed over.
I heard the live BBC Radio 3 relay of Symphony 5 (May 3, 1973, Royal Festival Hall) as a fifteen-year-old (transistor radio, earpiece) and was utterly bowled-over by it. What a fabulous piece of music! And what a charged/intense premiere from the LSO and Andrew Davis (he would revisit the work with the Philharmonia Orchestra), the young (twenty-nine) conductor marshalling the large forces with enthusiasm and expertise, the fired-up LSO responding with virtuosity, precision and refinement in spades. This is music (in five continuous movements lasting forty minutes) that grips the listener from the first second to the last – whether eerie/suspenseful, explosive, intricate, eloquent, forceful. Symphony 5 is a big, organic, powerful statement: compelling and exhilarating (I am in fact underselling this masterpiece!) and if composer-references are required, then, for different reasons, Beethoven and Nielsen come to mind, both central to Simpson as a creator and as a commentator.
The just-over half-hour Symphony 6 (also RFH, April 8, 1980) is concerned with birth and development. Sir Charles Groves conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra in music that may be less overt than its predecessor but is no-less rewarding. It is cast in two Parts (again attacca) opening expressively, reaching cataclysm, then finding pastoral contemplation, and finally renewed energy, ending with striding optimism.
The sound is excellent in both works – clear and dynamic, remastered with ‘good ears’.
Curiously, albeit to avoid delays caused by Covid, the release date for Lyrita SRCD.389 is April 2 (see below) but the CDs have been in early circulation (hence this review) and Amazon, for one, is already shipping this title.
Postscript: a week or so before the premiere of Symphony 5, Simpson’s Fourth had been unveiled, by the Hallé and James Loughran, another auspicious occasion that was also aired to the nation. Does the BBC retain its tape? Does a private collector have a copy of the broadcast? If so, it’s an important document, for it contains the original slow movement, a beauty, lost to us when Simpson replaced it. His prerogative of course.