On Saturday 21 April at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, German cellist Leonard Elschenbroich (left) and the BBC Philharmonic will be giving the first ever performance of the new Cello Concerto by British clarinettist and composer Mark Simpson (right). The concert will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in early May. With the big occasion approaching, Simpson and Elschenbroich met up with BBC Music Magazine to tell us about the concerto and the joys of working together…
You clearly know each other well. How closely have you worked together before?
Mark: We first met each other when we were on the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme in 2012, and performed together on a number of occasions, including at the Cheltenham Festival. A couple of years later I wrote a piece for cello and piano for Leonard called Night Music. Since then, we’ve become friends and stayed closely in contact.
So who first approached whom for Night Music?
Leonard: It was me who asked Mark. I knew his composing a little bit from various BBC performances and had watched him playing his piece for clarinet and piano called Echoes and Embers and was so taken with his gift for melody. It’s quite rare to find composers these days who can write melodically, especially in chamber music. We played Night Music at a lot of venues, including Wigmore Hall, and also recorded it for Mark’s debut disc on the NMC label.
Can you briefly describer the new concerto?
Mark: It’s in three movements, and follows a fairly traditional arc. The first movement is moderately fast, then we have a slower lament in the second movement before heading into a more sprightly dance-like finale.
And does it make tough demands of the soloist?
Leonard: It’s incredibly demanding for the cellist, but is never written in a way that is not suited to the instrument. It has a level of difficulty that demands that you practise it a lot, but it the end it is playable. That was very important to me, and is something that not all composers achieve.
How closely did you work on it together, then?
Leonard: We discussed the technical aspects of cello playing in quite a lot of detail before Mark started to write the concerto. We looked at my favourite cello concertos from the last 50 to 100 years plus the kind of techniques that work well for the cello in general and those that I particularly like or dislike. We also considered timbre and what sort of limitations of pitch there are if you want the cello to sound happy. And then, as he wrote it, he would send it through bit by bit to me, and I would respond…
Mark: …and there was always something wrong with it that I had to correct!
And did Mark always comply with your suggestions, Leonard?
Leonard: There was one moment when I was asking for a particular musical thing, and he replied ‘In the end, I can only write what comes to me’. I thought it would be unfair of me to over-direct the composition of it – not least because I am not a composer myself – so there were instances where I didn’t insist on things.
Mark: What Leonard is politely trying to say is that he gave me a long list of things, and I didn’t do any of them!
Leonard: No, that’s not true! Subconsciously or not, Mark has really succeeded in writing music very much in keeping with what I think works well.
And to what extent, Mark, did you shape the concerto around Leonard’s sound?
Mark: Leonard has this incredible ability to sing very intensely on the cello, and his instrument itself is phenomenal. That fitted well with the kind of melodic intensity I wanted, so I didn’t necessarily have to think too hard about that – it just came naturally.
And what else should the audience listen out for at the world premiere on Saturday?
Mark: There are a couple of musical nods to the Elgar Cello Concerto in there, which is something I think that regular concert-goers might appreciate.
Leonard: We will be performing it close to the 100th anniversary year of Elgar writing his concerto. Plus, when we record Mark’s concerto it will be coupled with the Elgar and with Walton’s concerto, which was written in the 1950s – so you have three great British cello concertos spanning 100 years!
For tickets to the world premiere of Simpson's Cello Concerto at Bridgewater Hall, click here.