The world premiere of a cello concerto is a pretty rare event, and interesting, for one thing, just because there aren’t many of them around. New violin concertos seem to come along quite often – but a good new cello concerto must have a chance of digging out a real niche in the repertoire.
I think Mark Simpson’s new Cello concerto, his first piece written to commission by the BBC Philharmonic since he was made its Composer in Association, could be that good. It’s traditional in form: three movements, of which the middle one is slow (a lament, in the composer’s description). There’s also a slow and thoughtful unaccompanied cadenza in the final movement which, while it may not be as substantial as the solo movement in Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, has the role of recalling the mood of the slow movement and thus giving depth, as well as intimacy, to the whole piece.
It’s also a melodically led piece of writing, with a lot of ‘traditional’ harmony, and its structures are clear. Mark Simpson is an expert at writing huge and complicated textures for orchestra, and those are there, too – but usually with the role of making a contrast to the eloquent solo song of the cello. The orchestra includes a piano, which plays its own prominent part in some of the tutti episodes, and there’s percussion, too (an outburst near the beginning which doesn’t lead to anything in particular but is there perhaps to offer some alternative ways of expressing intensity which are to be rejected.
The harmonic stasis of the ‘lament’ movement – strings alone, in almost a high ‘pedal’ effect, coupled with slowly changing overtones – and the keening sound of the cello solo itself, in the higher regions of its range, made that the most impressive section for me. It contains a very big climax, too – a marker you can hardly fail to spot – and Simpson gives his soloist some technically demanding multi-stopping for good measure.
Mark Simpson says the third movement has a ‘dancing momentum’, and there are certainly pulsing sounds in the orchestra, though whether dancing was quite the effect that came over in this performance I’m not sure. But the cadenza brings back the mood of meditation, before a final gesture akin to a small rocket taking off – an effective finish and no mistake.
Leonard Elschenbroich was the skilful and passionate soloist in this first outing, and the piece was written for him and so bears something of his personal stamp – all very much to the good, in my view. The conductor was Clemens Schuldt, a young man whose command of the score and sympathy with it was never in doubt.
The rest of his programme was Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration – richly rendered, with bold contrasts of mood, by the BBC Philharmonic under the leadership of Yuri Torchinsky – and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1. That also boasted vivid contrasts and high-energy playing of the composer’s characteristic ‘Keystone Cops’ style music – but the sustained intensity of feeling in the slow movement was if anything more rewarding, and the finale included another lovely cello solo, this time from the orchestra’s own principal, Peter Dixon.