The opening of Mark Simpson’s new Cello Concerto is pure Hollywood. A fanfare in the low brass, an upwards rush and suddenly the screen floods with lush orchestral sound — as confident in its onward sweep as Star Wars or ‘Tara’s Theme’. Waiting, poised, in the middle of it all was the soloist Leonard Elschenbroich, for whom Simpson has said that he wanted to write a concerto that celebrated the cello’s ‘expressive and lyrical force’. He has, too. From the instant Elschenbroich entered, it felt right. The cello soared over a chiming marimba, like in Walton’s Cello Concerto. It lingered over its farewells, like in Elgar’s. And it rocketed headfirst into the orchestra, like the bit in Dvorak’s concerto where, in The Witches of Eastwick, Susan Sarandon’s cello bursts into flames.
Who could resist all that? Some of the concerto’s impact comes from Simpson’s decision to cast it in a traditional three-movement layout. It’s also rare to hear a new concerto that sets a soloist so thrillingly against full orchestra. Yet as Sir Michael Tippett once said, ‘The general public still lives for the Orchestra with a capital O’. There’s nothing intrinsically conservative in acknowledging that truth, any more than Simpson’s quotes and allusions detract from, rather than define, his own voice. Tippett wrote eloquently about the communicative power of musical archetypes — forms and gestures that come preloaded with meaning. Perhaps it’s a northern thing, but the Liverpudlian Simpson instinctively grasps that for a big night out it’s not about the brands you’re wearing but the flair with which you carry them off.
And to be fair, he’s always had a magpie tendency. In 2008 he made his orchestral debut with Threads, a dazzlingly scored blowout that sounded like a kid on a sugar rush: in other words, exactly what you’d hope for from a brilliantly gifted 19-year old who’d just been handed the keys to the National Youth Orchestra. He hasn’t yet lost that bigness, that boldness, or that sense that he simply loves the sound it all makes. So much British contemporary music shivers with East Anglian damp. But place Simpson’s music into the middle of a Saturday night in central Manchester and it grabs you by the shoulders. His 2016 nightclub opera Pleasure found a musical language of sticky floors and pulsing neon and charged it with the lyrical, dramatic impulse of a Monteverdi.
This Cello Concerto is having it just as large. The cello whirls, peacocks and cries into the night: the orchestra, with its luxuriant strings and jangling percussion, frames it in great hot blasts of aftershave, diesel fumes and masala spices. True, there were passages (like a sequence where the cello duets sadly with an out-of-step oboe) that made you wonder whether elsewhere Simpson needs to cool it slightly — to step back and let his melodies catch their breath. And it might not have been entirely the fault of the BBC Philharmonic or the conductor Clemens Schuldt when the cello, dancing hyperactively in the stratosphere, became inaudible — though Elschenbroich never seemed to break a sweat. But the bravura, the assurance and the sheer generosity of this music is unarguable. As we say in the north-west — by ’eck, petal, it’s gorgeous.
Tippett never stopped thinking big, either. Literally: 87 years old and almost blind, he wrote (or rather tried to write) his final work The Rose Lake on sheets of manuscript paper a metre high. During an afternoon talk before this performance by Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, Tippett’s biographer Oliver Soden showed a series of pages from the manuscript, with Tippett’s handwriting becoming ever more crabbed and sparse up to the heartbreaking point where his strength gave out and he resorted to dictation. Meanwhile a colour snap from Tippett’s 1990 holiday in Senegal showed the miraculous colour-shifting mineral lagoon that inspired the piece looking dispiritingly beige.
Somehow, out of all of this, Tippett found once again the ‘abounding exuberant beauty’ that he saw as the only possible goal for any serious artist. Rattle and his orchestra made it sing, in a performance in which even the 38 rototoms — 1970s percussion instruments that Tippett impractically, inimitably, thought could function like timpani — had a mellow glow. The LSO’s violins gleamed and rippled with a liquid sheen, and fanfares of birdsong blazed: an old Messiaen hand, Rattle knows how to clarify or blend the different colours of even the most iridescent woodwind chord. But amid all this radiance and lightly worn collective virtuosity, the loveliest moment came with the perfect timing and throwaway insouciance of the very last note, over which the composer wrote the single word ‘plop’. Ninety years old when The Rose Lake was premièred in 1995, Tippett was still in love with the sound that music makes.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free