October 25, 2015
The Immortal – Times review
Despite its arcane and morbid subject, Mark Simpson’s oratorio The Immortal is the most thrilling new choral work I have heard for years. With this piece (commissioned by the Manchester International Festival), he and his librettist, the poet Melanie Challenger, match the grandeur of those epic avant-garde choral pieces produced half a century ago by the likes of Penderecki, Stockhausen and the young Tavener.
Simpson’s sound world, however, is his own. At 26, what a prospect he is. And he is as virtuosic a clarinettist (a former BBC Young Musician of the Year) as a composer. Some people have too much.
The Immortal delves into the creepy Late Victorian world of seances, as revealed by John Gray’s book The Immortalization Commission — particularly the strange events at the start of the 20th century when mediums in different countries began writing down communications from the recently deceased psychical researcher Frederic Myers. He guarded an awful secret throughout his life: his love for a young married woman who had cut her throat and then drowned herself.
Challenger’s stream-of-consciousness libretto weaves together the anguished “automated” ramblings supposedly dictated posthumously by Myers with elliptical details of this tragic affair. However, Simpson’s multilayered, swirling score, superbly realised by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena, transcends these specifics to evoke the philosophical turmoil of humanity in general as we cling to such concepts as love, soul and immortality when the cold materialism of modern science suggests that such things are tricks of the sentimental mind.
A baritone (Mark Stone) sang Frederic’s words in a deep, slithering voice reminiscent of an old 78rpm record played by mistake at 33rpm. Amplified voices (the excellent Exaudi ensemble) added screams and whispers, coalescing with orchestral shimmers to suggest a timeless universe full of disembodied entities. An additional choir (the Manchester Chamber Choir) was utilised to project surging unisons, underpinned by lustrous, dark, tonal harmonies.
In other places, however, the oratorio became a wild danse macabre, with rasping brass and eight thumping percussionists. I immediately wanted to hear it all again; look out for Radio 3’s (as yet unscheduled) broadcast.