Half an hour down the road from the Royal Albert Hall in an innocuous Kensington road are the premises of The Society for Psychical Research, an institution that seeks to research events that do not seem explicable by conventional science. The chances are that if you haven’t heard of this institute, you won’t have heard of one Frederic Myers, a founding member and its president in 1900. Myers wrote extensively on subjects such as ‘metetherial worlds’ and ‘subliminal selves’ and the society was involved in an array of paranormal occult activities, including seances. Mark Simpson’s response to reading about the SPR was a 35-minute oratorio for orchestra, baritone, chorus and semi-chorus, The Immortal, which premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2015 under the same conductor and orchestra.

Juanjo Mena © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Juanjo Mena
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The libretto by Melanie Challenger was partly inspired by the bizarre scribblings of the mediums in the SPR seances which were supposedly messages from the departed which Simpson has transferred to the chorus, and part inspired by the obsessive, all-consuming grief at an early bereavement that drove Myers to the paranormal, which is turned into a reflection sung by the baritone. Although the disconcerting choral text is intriguing, it’s Myers’ lines which have the greatest emotional impact. The issue with this performance was volume and balance. The chorus and semi-chorus were fighting and distracting from the orchestra, cancelling the nuances of each other out. The orchestral writing has some ‘spooky’ moments and the percussion in particular has striking music, particularly when underlain by the brass. Christopher Purves, resplendent in a tartan kilt, gave a thoughtful performance, conveying the lingering haunting of the early tragedy, but he too was at risk from the sheer volume from behind him. With some adjustment to textural dynamics and sheer volume, particularly in the first movement, it’s a work that is interesting enough to want to see again.

From post-mortem to ante-mortem, we moved to Tchaikovsky’s final symphony, the Pathétique, which provided so much tabloid-level speculation about a suicide note in musical notation, but which the composer himself considered to be the highlight of his opus. After the orchestral excess of the previous work, Juanjo Mena led a surprisingly clinical performance. Well-phrased bassoon playing opened up into a first movement that focused more on detail than emotion. Clear instrument delineation was a pleasure to hear and there was some poignancy of expression, but it lacked force. The second movement with its 5/4 waltz element felt more unrestrained, with greater feeling to the strings and a youthful perkiness to the horns. The third movement, where dynamics were particularly tight, saw an expansive clarinet solo and military precision to the strings, though brass phrasing seemed slightly off and again, the orchestra lacked drive. The famous finale was stronger; there was subtlety to the woodwind and a sense of plangency as the movement opened, and Mena’s pacing was spot on. Although it was never going to be the most emotional of interpretations, there was a touch of fire to the strings in the D major Andante that made an effective contrast to the melancholy coda. The gradual dissipation of the orchestra into silence as the symphony ended was carefully judged.