BLINK, at the Bridgewater Hall on Saturday night, and it might have been the Grim Reaper conducting the BBC Philharmonic and massed choirs, summoning up the spirits of the dead with his scythe for a baton.

It’s the kind of daring juxtaposition that is MIF’s forte

Look again and, of course, it was the much jollier figure of principal conductor Juanjo Mena tackling a programme that yoked together the familiar Mozart Requiem and the world premiere of Mark Simpson’s The Immortal, both works which walk in the valley of the shadow of death.

It’s the kind of daring juxtaposition that is MIF’s forte. One is accustomed to seeing a commissioned contemporary work slipped into the first half of a concert before the main crowd-pleaser. Here the Requiem is cast as the warm-up for a hugely ambitious oratorio by a prodigy of our own times – yet it is nearly a decade since Simpson became the first person to win both the BBC 'Young Musician of the Year' and BBC Proms/Guardian 'Young Composer of the Year'. Surely The Immortal is his coming of age. 

Mark SimpsonMark Simpson

It literally summons up the dead, librettist Melanie Challenger drawing on the so-called ‘Cross Correspondences’, the extraordinary scripts of a series of séances undertaken in the first decades of the 20th century, and in particular focusing on a central figure in the Society for Psychical Research, Frederic Myers.

For Myers dying was “a progressive moral evolution, no longer truncated by physical catastrophe but moving continuously towards an infinitely distant goal” with his belief in his own powers of telepathy enabling him to communicate with departed souls.

So far so wacky, but the emotional core of Simpson’s haunting (literally) piece is Myers’ tragic secret he only revealed at the end of his life – when he was a young man his childhood sweetheart Annie Marshall committed suicide by cutting her throat with scissors, then drowning herself. Obviously all his attempts to contact the dead were in the desperate hope of being reunited with her.

Superb baritone soloist Mark Stone as the Myers figure leads us on a tormented journey but finally finds some desolate solace in the closing coda: “She is standing close to me. A May flower that never ceased to bloom.”

Written in a very different context but there were echoes of Britten’s War Requiem, in particular the setting of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting where the protagonist encounters underground the German solder he had killed, and the extraordinary, complex power of Simpson’s piece is almost Brittenesque at times.

Whereas Britten recreates the devastation of war, Simpson conjures up the disturbance of spirits in extraordinary, eery fashion, aided by Exaudi, an eight-strong vocal ensemble of remarkable flexibility. They, the Manchester Chamber choir and a rampant BBC Phil produced a magnificently spooky aural mayhem. Enough to lift the dead!

In contrast, Mozart’s Requiem, the composer’s poignant anticipation of his own death, was curiously subdued with only tenor Steve Davislim and soprano Ruby Hughes impressing among the solo voices.

The Immortal took place at The Bridgewater Hall on Saturday 4 July.


(photo credit main: Ian Greenall)