A Tribute To Robert Simpson | Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

"Ultimately, we can do only what we are constituted to do: whether we do it well or not is what really matters." This was the courageous creed of British composer Robert Simpson, who died in 1997.

While the likes of Boulez and Stockhausen are currently the object of lavish celebrations while still living, it is somehow typical of the way we treat our own composers that we should have to wait until three years after Simpson's death for this modest, but welcome, five-concert tribute.

"Doing what we are constituted to do" for Simpson meant avoiding the avant-garde bandwagons of his time and sticking to composing music in the great, tonal tradition - one of the reasons he got into trouble with the BBC and others.

In Saturday's concert, the Lindsays showed the effectiveness of the individual language Simpson developed for himself, in the 2nd Quartet of 1953. In one movement, starting from a slightly convoluted opening, a genuine contrapuntal interplay of voices builds a structure of great tension and power, the tragic lyrical element brought in by the viola, and a recurring, nagging agitato figure draws the music inexorably through a tremendous fugal build-up, to its doleful, downbeat, viola-led ending.

This compelling work was played with obvious conviction by the Lindsays, whose robust - even, occasionally, rather careless - approach seemed to fit this craggy music well.

Their style was even better suited to the wondrous Beethoven Op. 132 Quartet. In the amazing "Song of thanksgiving" they caught marvellously the simple, primal and yet intense joy of this music, written in defiance of suffering, and with immense dynamism drove the turbulent, searching finale to a most satisfying end.

The Vanbrugh Quartet, whose contribution was on Wednesday, have quite a different sound and style from the Lindsays and they didn't seem too comfortable in the Beethoven Rasumovsky Quartet Op. 59 No. 2 with which they daringly began their programme. There were one or two technical problems and their interpretation didn't come across as fully realised - though, by the galvanic rhythms of the scherzo and the olympian humour of the finale, things had come together rather better.

In Robert Simpson's 15th and last quartet, the effect was altogether more convincing - as it should have been, the Vanbrugh being the dedicatees of the piece, which they premiÿred in 1992. This is a concentrated, economical and closely-argued work, with a definite Beethovenian drive and a marvellous way of deriving extensive musical material out of one or two simple motifs.

The sombre, shadowy opening leads to a great energy burst, scurrying tremolandos and a level of tension which, rather than resolving in positive sense, moves through melodic material to an eerie fade-out. The Vanbrugh Quartet put across this culminating piece in Simpson's quartet cycle in a cogent and most moving manner, as they did also Smetana's Quartet No. 1 - a lesser work, though - with which they concluded proceedings.