Mahler Symphony no 6 with Luca Francesconi's Duende, with Susanna Mälkki conducting the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, last week, available HERE direct from the orchestra's website. Two innovative pieces, written a hundred years apart yet enhancing each other. Mahler said "music lies not only in the notes", meaning that music stems from much deeper sources than the the means through which it is expressed.
Francesconi's Duende : The Dark Notes (2013) was commissioned for Leila Josefowicz, who worked so closely with the composer as the piece took shape that it's practically a co-operative effort. When Josefowicz fell pregnant, the premiere was postponed for a year. Mälkki is also closely connected to the piece since she introduced Josefwicz to Francesconi, and conducted the world premiere in Stockholm in February 2014. This Helsinki performance distils experience into maturity: a very rewarding reading. Josefowicz is superb, better even than when she played it in London in 2015 with Mälkki and the BBC SO. (read more here) The title refers to the semi-hypnotic state flamenco dancers can get into when they get carried away with this spirit of their music. "When the ego dies, the soul awakes", a message which applies to all things in life, specially relevant in a world where too many proudly reject anything beyond themselves.
Duende grows from refined beginnings : sprightly chords answered by hushed percussion As the tempo builds up the violin seems to take on a life of its own, gloriously inventive, ranging free, as if the instrument were exploring a world of wonder and endless possibilities. Sudden, exotic diminuendos enhanced by low winds. Spiky pizzicato and long lines of dizzying bowing. Extreme alertness : orchestra and soloist paying close attention to each other. Josefowicz rests while the brass lead the orchestra on an adventure. The fourth movement, Ritual, is like the stillness in the eye of a storm. Then the bassoons call, and Josefowicz leads the orchestra in splendid swathes of colourful resonance. Then Josefowicz is on her own, "zoned out" yet totally in control playing long lines of exquisite beauty and variety. A single marimba, then another, creating mysterious ripples of magical sound. Josefowicz's lines become rarified, as if the violin is taking off into an ethereal new dimension.
In this context, Mahler's Symphony no 6 felt immensely rewarding. The first movement was brisk, bringing out the march-like undercurrents, underlining the vigorous life force that runs throughout so much of Mahler. When the quieter, shriller themes came they added a chill of presentiment. Yet the march continued, firmly delineated, emerging in defiant swagger. The Andante was tenderly phrased, warm yet tinged with nostalgia, since the images being recalled are firmly in the past. What I liked about this performance was the way Mälkki brought out the duality which flows through the symphony, past and future merging in subtle balance. One of the better M6 andantes I've heard in a while. The Helsinki players are strong on refined texture, and Mälkki uses that to advantage. The line hovers, yet rises ever upward,: like the vistas in Mahler's Third. Lovely as things are, life is forever a state of flux, nothing can stay the same. The andante drew to a close with almost elegaic repose, so greater the shock when the strident brass and strings in the scherzo burst forth. A strong sense of menace, the chords cutting with angular force. Yet despite this, tiny, dancing lines rip along, undaunted by pounding timpani. The natural pulse of this symphony beats clear and pure. Even when the brass throws mocking raspberries, the basic line picks itself up and keeps dancing.
Thus the resolution, when it came in the Finale, was firm. The "tragic" figures marched, the strings shivered , the cymbals exploded. Mälkki's tempi were resolute, no holding back. Nonetheless, there is a stillness in the heart of this movement, a final looking back. before the dull thud of the first hammerblow. The orchestra flew into forceful life, the "march" well-defined. When we heard the cowbells again, they were muted. The pace slowed as if reluctant to progress. Yet the oboe returned, sweet and defiant, and the orchestra once more flared into life, gradually receding. After the final crash, the sounds are still. But as we know, the music does not end. Often, I think Mahler 6 should be called "The Inextinguishable" and not "The Tragic".