Music: Mark Simpson, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Librettist: Melanie Challenger
Conductor: Juanjo Mena
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Tonight is all about death, and our attempts to cheat it.
Mozart, aged 35, was railing against it (and lost) even as he was composing his great Requiem in D minor, which opens tonight’s Manchester International Festival programme at the Bridgewater Hall. Whether or not there’s any truth in the mythology that Wolfgang was writing the Requiem for his own funeral is, of course, immaterial. He lives on, as great composers do, through the work – probably as close to cheating death as you can get. Requiem needs little introduction, yet experiencing it in full in the concert hall reminds you that some of its greatest moments are not those you know best. The early Sequentia section stands out here, as the Manchester Chamber Choir and four soloists seem to really hit their mark, in particular soprano Ruby Hughes, whose voice has a spine-tingling clarity. Requiem is a stately, sober memorial, a fitting end for anyone, whoever they may be.
In the Victorian age, though, a frenzied, and somewhat more unhealthy fascination with the afterlife became a popular pursuit. Perhaps brought on by the increasingly convincing scientific research of Darwin and his peers, and respective doubts around religion, séances became the popular evening entertainment of philosophers, scientists and artists. In 2011, Philosopher John Gray wrote The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, which recounts the hysteria with which learned, and often unlikely, individuals embraced the occult. Fascinated by Gray’s book, Composer Mark Simpson and Librettist Melanie Challenger were inspired to create The Immortal. It’s a powerful, visceral work that conjures the unease and intensity of the séance, occasionally violent, often discordant, sometimes uncomfortable.
The Immortal requires a very full stage at the Bridgewater Hall, packed with busy musicians and singers. It’s fantastic to see the full BBC Philharmonic giving it all they’ve got, the percussionists sometimes having to run between instruments when the work is going full pace. The Manchester Chamber Choir fill the choir stalls, creating a wall of sound when they’re added to the mix. The highlight though is the wonderful Exaudi, a contemporary music ensemble who create a deliciously menacing vocal landscape alongside the solo baritone of Mark Stone. The text is made up of ‘cross correspondences’ from séances, excerpts from Gray’s book and archive material relating to the late 19th Century Society for Psychical Research, the membership of which reads like a who’s who of Victorian urbane society.
Simpson is clearly one to watch as he embarks on a four-year relationship with the BBC Philharmonic as Composer in Association. Not that he hasn’t already got quite an impressive CV, with BBC Young Musician of the Year, BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year already a distant memory, a number of newly commissioned works premiered by notable British orchestras, including Sparks, which opened the 2012 Last Night of the Proms. Now, at just twenty-seven years old he has produced The Immortal, an astonishing, mature and multi-layered work that provides a very promising start to the 2015 Manchester International Festival.
Reviewed on 4 July 2015