Susanna Mälkki Makes The Planets Sit Well with Impressive Contemporary Scores


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Prom 13 – Boulez, Luca Francesconi, Holst: Leila Josefowicz (violin), Elysian Singers (women’s voices), Sam Laughton (chorus master), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Susanna Mälkki (conductor), Royal Albert Hall London, 27.7.2015 (CS)

Boulez: Notations I-IV & VII
Luca Francesconi: Duende – The Dark Notes (BBC co-commission: UK premiere)
Holst: The Planets

Orchestral lavishnessness linked these three works performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki. The kaleidoscopic colours of Pierre Boulez’s Notations I-IV and VII were an entrancing preface to the extreme soundscapes of Luca Francesconi’s Duende: The Dark Notes for violin and orchestra, and the combination of extravagant theatricality and dark mystery present in both of these compositions resurfaced in a thoughtful performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

The Spanish word duende means, approximately, soul or authenticity. Goethe defined it, when speaking of Paganini, as, ‘a mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain’. Francesconi adds, ‘Historically duende is the demon of flamenco. As Federico Garcìa Lorca explains, it is a subterranean force of unheard-of power that escapes rational control. To recover a primitive force in the instrument that perhaps most embodies the history of the West it is necessary to make a perilous descent into the underworld of dark notes, or a flight beyond the orbit of the earth. Which amounts to the same thing. Extremely difficult. But without duende we remain bolted to the ground.’

The composer certainly asks his violin soloist to climb to perilous heights in the opening bars of Duende: The Dark Notes. The work was written for the American violinist Leila Josefowicz and commissioned by SR Swedish Radio, RAI National Symphony and the BBC. It was premiered by Josefowicz and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mälkki in February 2014 and was originally scheduled for last year’s Proms season. Josefowicz’s astonishingly virtuosic, committed and invigorating performance proved that it was worth waiting for.

Duende is a five-movement work which explores the juxtaposition of extreme height and depth, suggesting the far reaches of the cosmos and the bowels of the earth. After the long first movement in which the solo violinist explores the most stratospheric reaches of the instrument, there is a short interlude for the soloist and strings, before the third movement pulls the violinist down to lower realms. The fourth movement, ‘Ritual’, is the epicentre of the work, and the only movement to be titled: here at last is stillness and quietude, in a long, slow episode for solo violin. More bravura ensues in the flashing cadenza at the start of the final movement, but this fades into softer orchestral timbres before the re-entry of the soloist directs the music back to the celestial reaches whence it began. The flamenco influence inferred by the title is evident in the instrumental colourings, rhythmic intensity and rapid violin figurations; and there are further ethnic associations in the third and fourth movements, in which an accordion is integrated into the large orchestra. Francesconi studied with Berio and Stockhausen, and the former’s love of striking contrasts is also present in the constantly shifting mosaics as the material is continuously reinterpreted, creating a sense of restless spontaneity and profound, unsettling energies. There are huge bursts of drama but also an underlying sense of coherence in the fusion of contrasting sounds.

Josefowicz gave an extraordinarily vivid performance; nor for a moment did the intensity of her ‘dark sounds’ – or her direct communication with the audience – lessen. The almost violent repetitive patterns and savage string crossings were meticulously executed and never harsh, and the textures of the arpeggios and arching chords remained transparent. In the highest reaches her tone was pure, like a light from the heavens.

Mälkki’s command of the details and structure was highly impressive and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were exciting but exact accompanists. Fragile, tense percussion quivers; brief brass snatches; potent pizzicato stabs from the cellos; mournful tuba utterances: the instrumental fabric was a phantasmagoria of gestures, transformations and superimpositions. A similar control and discipline was evident in Mälkki’s approach to the opening work of the concert, Pierre Boulez’s Notations I-IV and VII – the piano miniatures of 1945 which have since grown to become one of the composer’s most prolonged ‘compositions-in-progress’, expanding into orchestral realisations, the most recent of which, Notation VII, appeared in 1998.

Mälkki worked closely with Boulez during her seven years with the Ensemble Intercontemporain and this experience surely informed this impressive and confident performance. The distinct colour of each movement was captured. Particularly striking were the surge in Notation III from the taut brass chords of the opening to the timpani-driven conclusion; the cor anglais and clarinet solos that add a dash of languor to Notation VII before the swing and crescendo into nasal brass outbursts; and the juddering rhythmic asymmetries of Notation II. Changes of pace were expertly controlled, and despite the scale of the orchestration, Mälkki conveyed the delicacy and translucence of the score as well as its jarring energies.

Holst’s perennially popular The Planets might have seemed an odd choice with which to conclude a programme which thus far had focused on the experimental and new, but Mälkki’s thoughtful and imaginative approach reminded us that Holst was just as original a thinker and practitioner as his modern-day successors. She held the BBC SO on a tight rein, more focused on rhythmic incisiveness and textural clarity than on heroic volume and rhetoric, which served to make the climactic moments even more penetrating. Thus, at the end of ‘Mars’ the dynamic explosion of the closing bars brought only superficial relief from the movement’s tense, relentless rhythmic repetitions, making the beautifully restrained horn solo and tender pulsing crotchets of woodwind and harp at the start of ‘Venus’ beguilingly restful and consoling. Similarly, the fleet, airy scurrying of ‘Mercury’ balanced the warm tunefulness of ‘Jupiter’, where Mälkki avoided sentimental indulgence, keeping the rhythms taut and the tempo fairly brisk.

‘Saturn’ effected a moving transition to darker realms. The syncopated two-note ostinato oscillated resignedly, beneath which the double basses climbed the arcs of their melody. Extensions of the ostinato motif from low clarinets, then horns, then trombones injected gloomier hues and the mood was further clouded by the descending tread – four repeated steps, over and over – of cellos and double basses. The entry of the timpani seemed to make doom inescapable, and the accelerando duly built to a blazing fortissimo; but there was retreat from the abyss and the concluding Andante brought the solace of rippling flute and harp above muted strings. Mälkki’s skilful handling of the structure was noteworthy.

After the fizzing sparkles of ‘Uranus’, the strange harmonies and luminous timbres of ‘Neptune’ brought a mystical peace, Mälkki drawing forth clearly textured playing from the BBC SO: celeste cascades, harp tremolos and whispers, string sul ponticello shimmering and quiet timpani trills all spoke clearly. Perhaps Mälkki might have allowed the orchestral pianissimo to retreat still further, but a profound otherworldliness was initiated by the entry of the Elysian Singers, the off-stage female chorus seeming to sing from a distant planet, far beyond earthly realms. What a pity the dying of their wordless sighs into an infinite silence was preceded by the strident bawling of a toddler, who was quickly whisked out of the Hall by an embarrassed father. But, nothing could destroy the meditative timelessness of the floating choral echoes, diminishing in perpetuity.

Claire Seymour

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