Music can transport us to new worlds through poetry and painting with sound, as conductor Susanna Mälkki’s concert with us this month at the Barbican reveals.
The centrepiece of this concert will be Alexander Scriabin’s Symphony No 4, also known as ‘The Poem of Ecstasy’. The Russian-born composer is renowned for his musical symbolism and an obsession with mystical philosophy, and ‘The Poem of Ecstasy’ certainly lives up to this reputation.
‘It’s an amazing piece,’ says the globally-renowned conductor Mälkki. ‘Absolutely gorgeous. And it’s relatively rarely performed because it’s so massive.’
She says she chose this work alongside music by French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel because ‘Scriabin’s composing is both Russian and French in style. It’s this time of the tonality collapsing or flowing over, which is something Debussy did a bit later. There’s definitely a connection between Scriabin and the French music in the tonality, which becomes so saturated we almost lose it.
‘It’s an incredible masterpiece that’s so rich in colours and expression, and it also has a very dramatic curve.’
As someone who’s performed with some of the world’s greatest orchestras, Mälkki says this work needs an ensemble of the experience and size of the London Symphony Orchestra because the music is so rich, but it also needs considerable levels of refinement. ‘It’s a fascinating work because we have a massive orchestra for the [very dramatic] ending, but there also are many places where it’s incredibly intimate and chamber music-like; it’s exactly why we need an orchestra of the quality of the LSO, and I can’t wait to do this piece with them.’
Before all that drama, pianist Kirill Gerstein who is Spotlight Artist with the LSO across four concerts in the 2023/24 season, will play Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Written in 1930 for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his arm in the First World War, the composer manages to make one hand sound like two.
‘It’s a pearl,’ smiles Mälkki. ‘It’s so original. It’s incredible how, in this relatively short time, the music can guide us through so many different mental places. It’s an incredibly satisfying challenge to solve the fact that you have the soloist playing with one hand, and then what the orchestra is doing is quite massive.
‘I love this piece because it has a triumphant feel to it, but of course, it’s profoundly tragic; I like that combination of the two. I think it’s a masterpiece. And I’m delighted to be doing it with Kirill and the orchestra.’
The Impressionist feel of Debussy’s Three Nocturnes opens the concert. Three quite different movements paint beautiful and evocative mental images and are typical of the composer’s desire to reject the traditional music gestures of the time.
‘I think Debussy is one of the most misunderstood geniuses in the history of music because he’s always so original,’ says Mälkki. ‘People raise their eyebrows a little bit, and there’s this ‘Whoa, what is this?’ response. In Three Nocturnes, the music doesn’t have a pompous ending, you’re left with a question mark. Personally, I love that because that’s the magic through which he pulls us into his world. It’s like symbolism in the way that you’re given a lot of hints, but then it’s up to you to make something out of them. If we were given the secret formula to crack the code, it wouldn’t be the same. I find it fascinating that more than 100 years later, we’re still perplexed about this music. And I find it absolutely magical.’
From an interview with James Drury, which originally appeared in the Barbican Guide December 2023