October 25, 2015
The Immortal – Guardian review
Mark Simpson says he composed the music for The Immortal, a blazingly original 40-minute oratorio steeped in the world of Victorian occultism, in a form of trance. If the purpose of art is to pose existential questions, then the piece, commissioned by the Manchester International festival and performed by the BBC Philharmonic, Manchester Chamber Choir and Exaudi, is concerned with what might be the most fundamental question of all: is anybody there?
Melanie Challenger’s libretto incorporates transcripts from seances held in the late 1800s by the Society for Psychical Research. In particular, it focuses on the personal crisis of one of the society’s founders, Frederic Myers, who later admitted that his attempt to establish a scientific basis for the afterlife was motivated by the hope of being reunited with his first love, who had killed herself by drowning.
The paranormal effects Simpson conjures from the expansive forces are genuinely eerie. The vocalists of Exaudi intone and moan screeds of largely indecipherable automatic writing while baritone Mark Stone exhorts Myers’ anxieties on the passage from life to death in tones of blackest despair. He is buffeted through the choral maelstrom like a sceptical anti-Gerontius, who, instead of being eased towards purgatory by a team of spiritual assistants, sends panicked, fragmentary transmissions indicating terror at the lack of a welcoming committee.
The piece only really operates in two modes: intense and unbearably intense; yet the most easeful passage is a sublime Lacrimosa, which perhaps provides a clue as to why it has been paired on the programme with Mozart’s Requiem. Juanjo Menamay not be the most instinctive Mozartean conductor, but the hair-raising frenzy with which he and the excellent Manchester Chamber Choir attacked the Dies Irae felt like evidence of possession of a different kind.