Wigmore Hall, London
Robert Simpson died last November. But he virtually ceased composing in 1992, when a particularly horrible stroke paralysed him down one side and left him in constant pain. He was. however, able - with immense effort, and the tireless help of his wife - to add a minute or so of music to his Second String Quintet, and thus bring it to a conclusion. Of course one is grateful that the Quintet was not left unfinished, but the end is grim and deeply saddening. The driving forward movement suddenly ceases; muscular counterpoint is replaced by quiet, icy chords. The final sound is dissonance, left unresolved.
That said, it is still a very impressive piece of music. The , who commissioned it, obviously think so too, including it in one of their two Wigmore Hall 10th Anniversary Concerts. Joined by Pl Banda as second cellist, the Maggini performed it purposefully and with feeling, and with no false pathos in that disturbing coda - Simpson would have hated that. Even that eerie conclusion is purposeful in its way. The harmonies derive organically from the Quintet's opening motif, and in this performance the connections were quite clear.
And now that he is gone, who, amongst contemporary composers, shows anything like his ability for sustained organic growth, for the kind of music argument that grips intellectually and physically?
James MacMillan started his career as a very different kind of composer. True, he could create impressive long paragraphs when he wished - the opening and closing string threnodies of The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie are proof of that. But many of his works seemed happy to assemble themselves in short, connected sections, with dramatically contrasted gestures rather than symphonic continuity.
Recently, however, things have begun to change. The final movement of MacMillan's recent Symphony, Vigil is an astonishing sustained climax and falling away, a powerfully single-minded process. And the previous week, the gave the first performance of MacMillan's Second Quartet, Why is the night different? - perhaps his most striking single- minded work to date. The title refers to the Jewish rite for Passover. The programme note talks of confrontation and ambiguity between darkness and light, celebration and violence, innocence and danger. But in the Maggini's powerful performance the music showed itself capable of standing without any extra-musical reference. Like many of Robert Simpson's works, MacMillan's Second Quartet grows from potent musical seeds, sown at the beginning. Bartok and Shostakovich have clearly influenced the quartet writing, but the style is consistent, far less rhetorical than in much earlier MacMillan, and altogether less friendly. Some kind of iron seems to be entering his musical soul. It would be silly to talk - however tentatively - of MacMillan inheriting Simpson's musical mantle; they are much too different as composers. But like Simpson, MacMillan is a humanist (for all his Catholicism), and as such, he seems to be finding it more and more natural to think in terms of big, heroic spans and purposeful growth. If he can combine that with his proven humanity and expressive warmth, he could be a very considerable composer indeed. Good luck to him. And congratulations and thanks to the for such a thought-provoking choice of new repertoire.Reuse content