Classical: A timeless movement

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN ROBERT Simpson died last November, with 11 symphonies, 15 string quartets and a host of other substantial works to his credit, he left a substantial gap in Britain's musical life behind him. He had been the country's musical conscience: an unemphatic radical himself, in his broadcasts and writings Simpson held the modern age to account.

As each wave of watery fashion washed over a credulous musical establishment, he furthered the values he held important - not least the power of tonality to generate energy and momentum. But his own music - as important as anything being composed here - he would not push, and it was to do some pushing on its behalf that the Robert Simpson Society was formed in 1980. The resultant series of recordings, on the Hyperion label, has made Simpson's name a byword for musical honesty around the world.

Simpson left his body to medical science. So the concert organised by the Simpson Society in St John's was a form of secular funeral.

But it was the kind of funeral Simpson the hardcore humanist would have enjoyed. There was no unkempt sentiment and no religion; instead, there was something really sacred: music - in this instance, obviously, his own, topped with a quartet by the man he admired above all others, Beethoven.

Simpson's Seventh Quartet, written in 1977, uses the slow-fast-slow arch- form that he particularly favoured, with long, intertwining lines that gradually surge into a passionate climax before spiralling slowly into space.

This particular quartet was well chosen to illustrate another of his passions, astronomy: it was commissioned in memory of the astronomer Sir James Jeans.

That sense of size, of the pull of large forces informed almost everything Simpson wrote, and something of the elemental calm he could achieve informed the richly ruminative Adagio by Matthew Taylor.

Taylor is one of many young composers who admit the importance of Simpson's example, and this Adagio is an explicit tribute, an unsentimental reminiscence of the timeless slow movements at the heart of many of Simpson's own quartets. Both works were performed by the Delme Quartet, whose playing Simpson always treasured.

Variation-form was another of Simpson's favourite stomping grounds, and two works showed what power he could derive from it.

The Violin Sonata, commissioned in 1984 by Pauline Lowbury and Christopher Green-Armitage and played by them here with patent conviction, uses variation in its second movement to build a linked slow movement, scherzo and fugal finale, informed by the grim humour typical of Simpson the man. He took the same unity-through-diversity approach in the Variations and Finale on a Theme of Beethoven, composed in 1990 for Raymond Clarke, who performed it here.

Simpson's piano writing is not particularly idiomatic: he seems to hew the music from the instrument, and Clarke projected its fierce energy with genuine excitement.

The gathering was predominantly one of Simpson's friends, on both sides of the platform, with the artists giving their services for the occasion. It says much for the respect he commanded that the Vanbrugh Quartet made the long journey from Ireland to play. Their luminous reading of Beethoven's Tenth Quartet, "The Harp", op 74, would have brought him much pleasure.