Simpson: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 8

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 8
PERFORMER: RPO/Vernon Handley
The four-movement Eighth Symphony (1981), rarely performed, has remained till now the glaring gap in Robert Simpson’s discography. But with Handley’s dedicated performance, this gripping work, originating in a friend’s prescription for the kind of symphony he would like to hear, emerges as perhaps the toughest and darkest of the entire series. The innocent opening bars lead through the first movement’s deepening complexities to a sinister scherzo, an Adagio of terrifying austerity and baleful magnificence, and a moto perpetuo-like finale whose torrential energy more resembles a blind force of nature than an optimistic resolution.


Thirty years earlier, Symphony No. 1 was no prentice work but a downright and highly individual utterance. The three-in-one form, the unifying pulse that creates fast and slow tempi through different subdivisions, the starkly architectural grandeur, all adumbrate enduring Simpsonian concerns, while the central slow section is some of the most beautiful music he has ever composed. The only previous version, Boult’s stalwart 1957 recording with the LPO, has never appeared on CD. Handley’s slower tempi sound a mite ponderous (occasionally, I wished he would push harder in No. 8, too), but the sheer lack of constriction in Hyperion’s resplendent recording is a joy; the huge climaxes in both works are projected with molten intensity. Valiant performances; staggering music. Buy. Calum MacDonald