Thursday, June 18, 2015
Give us something else, give us something new
Carl Nielsen declared: "Give us something else, give us something new... and let us feel that we are still alive, instead of constantly going around in deedless admiration for the conventional". But his pleadings continue to be ignored, and in 2015 the conventions of composer anniversaries dictate that we hear little newer than a mix of Nielsen and Sibelius. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge admirer of Nielsen's music and it deserves to be heard more. But the opportunity to explore important music on its margins is being missed.
At the top of the list of missed opportunities are Robert Simpson's eleven symphonies. Robert Simpson (1921-1997) was an authority on Nielsen's music, and his opus includes the 'Variations on a theme by Nielsen'. Much is made of the influence of Nielsen and Bruckner on Simpson's symphonies; which is unfair, as he speaks with a voice that is his own. Less is made of the influence of Haydn, which is also unfair. Simpson was heavily influenced by Haydn, and it is a Haydenesque preoccupation with form over feeling that gives Simpson's symphonies an important place in the canon of late 20th century orchestral music.
There have been only three performances of Robert Simpson symphonies at the BBC Proms, the last in 1990, Simpson famously blamed Proms supremo and champion of the avant garde William Glock for the suppression of his symphonies, which is also unfair. In my view Simpson's eleven masterly symphonies have failed to find a place in the repertoire not just because they lacked the imprimatur of the Glock/Boulez circle, but also because they lack the overt emotionalism of Bax, Korngold and others contra avant gardists who have found audiences - albeit small ones - for their maverick symphonies.
It is significant that the only recordings of Simpson's symphonies in the catalogue are by Jascha Horenstein, Sir Adrian Boult and Vernon Handley; all conductors who were not afraid to swim against the tide. It is also significant that Sir Adrian chose Horenstein's recording of Simpson's Third Symphony as one of his desert island discs on the eponymous BBC programme. (Horenstein's recording of the symphony can be heard complete via YouTube). Tod Handley's set of the eleven symphonies on Hyperion is one of the classics of the gramophone. Let us hope Hyperion also reissue Simpson's fifteen consummate quartets in an equally affordable bundle to mark the twentieth anniversary of the composer's death in 2017. That anniversary also gives new BBC Proms director David Pickard the ideal opportunity to make amends for the composer's unwarranted neglect by scheduling at least one of the symphonies in the 2017 Proms season.
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