In Israfel, Mark Simpson sought to capture “something other-wordly, something transcendental”; Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… (A whole distant world…) speaks for itself; and Elgar’s Symphony no.1 in A flat major? Well, it may not have a programme, but this is what The Musical Times had to say in the wake of its much-lauded 1908 première: “there is a certain quality which has to be reckoned with, but cannot be calculated or accurately defined: that which lays hold of an audience, and is the breath of life to the work.”

Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Juanjo Mena and the BBC Philharmonic
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Although this description pertains to Elgar’s symphony — a mono-thematic voyage into the unknown — it might as well serve as a description of music in general; that undefinable quality, that striving for the other, is what keeps us coming back time and time again. But none of this ‘other-wordly’ music would be possible without the mundane: composers and performers. The Manchester-based BBC Philharmonic with their Chief Conductor, Juanjo Mena took this thoughtfully conceived programme in their stride, in what felt like a very collective effort; Mena, just one member of this team.

It wasn’t him, but a member of the second violins who stood up ahead of the Elgar to pay tribute, on behalf of the orchestra, to ‘Max’, a composer whose flame was kindled and championed by this very orchestra (then the BBC Northern Orchestra) and Sir Charles Groves. Sir Charles his Pavan was written to mark Groves’ passing and in turn it was used here to remember the life of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, composer and conductor of the orchestra for a decade.

Their current associate composer is Mark Simpson who, akin to Benjamin Britten, has already appeared at the Proms as both composer and soloist before the age of 30. Receiving its London première, Israfel takes it lead from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem of the same name, an ode to the Koranic angel of the trumpet. Episodic and fast-paced, the overall mood is one of tension – buzzing strings, pining woodwinds and percussion outbursts – but without trying, I didn’t get ‘other-wordly’. However, like another of the orchestra’s close collaborators, James MacMillan, he communicates chiefly with melody in addition to expressive modern colour. People are forever saying that they don’t get modern music due to a lack of melody; Mark Simpson strikes a happy medium.

Expressive modern colour best describes the music of Henri Dutilleux; perhaps also, a certain je ne sais quoi. The title of his Baudelaire-inspired cello concerto requires some contextualisation: “Sweltering Africa and languorous Asia, / A whole distant world, absent, almost defunct, / Dwells in your depths, aromatic forest!” What’s Baudelaire talking about? Hair (La Chevelure). Dutilleux’s concerto revels in those feelings which “cannot be calculated or accurately defined”, those sensations which knit life together. Cellist Johannes Moser took on the role of conveying them to audience, not through visceral emotion but, like a spiritual conduit, by removing himself from the picture. Without recourse to personal indulgence, his performance felt like a monodrama; his cello a lone puppet, he its skilful operator. His presence began to drift away as I was fixated on his instrument, whose disembodied voice spoke clearly of Baudelaire’s erotic musings. This was only made possible by Mena’s sympathetic control of the accompaniment, clearing the stage for Moser’s act. 

Like Moser, the BBC Philharmonic and Mena held a compelling reserve in Elgar’s Symphony no. 1 in A flat major, but it lacked that ‘other-wordly’ quality. The symphony has no meaning as such, but it too strives for something intangible. The whole piece revolves around the opening Nobilmente theme which, once glimpsed, becomes the sole object of its musical journey. The brass was on top form, heraldic and arresting, but the string playing lacked weight and real commitment. The piece’s climatic close, when the main theme is finally allowed to flourish again, should have a sense of life-affirming arrival, finally a chance to look on it once more before it’s whisked away. It ended very much with its feet on the ground.

***11