Mark Simpson’s oratorio The Immortal, scored for large forces, has the chutzpah of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast and recalls Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in its treatment of the afterlife. But there the comparisons end.
The Immortal intriguingly presents the case of the noted 19th-century psychic Frederic Myers, who attempted to contact his childhood sweetheart after she committed suicide. But even a kilted Christopher Purves could do little to imbue Myers’ cogitations about faith and rationalism with urgency, and they were too often buried beneath weighty orchestral and choral textures (Crouch End Festival Chorus).
There are, though, some suitably spooky sounds deploying a semi-chorus (London Voices). Melanie Challenger’s remaining texts, culled from fragments of spirit messages, are intentionally indiscernible. Simpson says it should sound like a séance; more like an oriental bazaar, I’d say. The orchestral fabric in these passages is no doubt multi-voiced too but comes across as monolithic.
Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony might seem a suitably morbid companion piece, but Juanjo Mena, conducting a routine performance with the BBC Philharmonic, had other ideas. He gave us an uninvolving first movement, a lightly tripping waltz with little minor-key melancholy n the middle section, and a less than heart-rending finale.
True, Tchaikovsky probably wasn’t here channelling his suicidal thoughts, as myth has it, but there’s no denying the intimations of mortality in the composer’s last symphony and the whiff of a séance would have been welcome here.
From a distant seat, orchestral balances were awry too; radio listeners may have fared better.