Slovakian composer and pianist Ľubica Čekovská, 40 this year, studied in Bratislava and later with Paul Patterson at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and now divides her time between her homeland and Germany. Her first full-length opera, Dorian Gray, was premiered in Bratislava in 2013 (and was reviewed at its Prague Spring last May. After previous orchestral works suggesting an inspiration in abstract concepts – TurbulenceFractal and Shadow Scale – her latest, Palingenia, taking its name from the Latin for the mayfly, has a more pictorial intent. The spur came from observing the fast-track cycle of life and death in the insect world in her garden, and in reading Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Last Dream of the Old Oak.

The 25-minute piece is divided into three broad sections encompassing, in Čekovská’s words, “the awakening, the life and – in the form of a dirge – the eternal sleep”. Commissioned and premiered here by the Essen Philharmonic, it proved to be a highly engaging journey. The music bubbles into life on tuned percussion, then harp (later given a fiendish-sounding solo role, for which Gabriele Bamberger deserved her own round of applause at the end) and frolicking woodwind. The melodic ideas seem appropriately ephemeral and brief, yet on first hearing the construction sounded motivically tight and bound by a strong rhythmic focus. As the music begins to take on a darker purpose, an innocent side-drum-led ostinato gradually whips up the whole orchestra with it. There’s quite a dance-like quality at times (in her other life, Čekovská is pianist in a jazz band), but the threat of extinction never seems far away and muted brass intone a kind of contorted chorale until eventually the generally bright colours are shaded and the harmony at the same time briefly clarifies into recognisable triads. With dissipating memories of the percussion-led opening, the cycle of life is completed. The odd insecure solo entry in its opening minutes apart, the Essen Philharmonic under its music director Tomáš Netopil did the music proud and the piece was warmly received by the Essen audience.

If Palingenia follows the traditional ‘birth-to-death’ trajectory, Mahler’s symphonic route was often closer to the other way round. And indeed, the Fifth Symphony, which completed the programme, begins with a funeral march and ends with life-affirming celebration. I have often been impressed with the Essen Philharmonic in its main operatic role in the pit of the Aalto Theatre. Hearing it in the more exposed situation of the stage of the neighbouring Essen Philharmonie concert hall, in the first of its ten symphonic programmes this season, reinforced those favourable impressions. There was both refinement and personality in its playing, from stalwart trumpeter Horst Westermann – firm and radiant in his many solos – to the plush warmth of its violins tugging at the heart-strings in the Adagietto. The otherwise full and generous acoustic of the Philharmonie had the effect of producing too much side echo of the massed brass, but the tuttis were suitably overwhelming in their impact. 

Netopil led a well-structured, unexaggerated reading of this most virtuosically composed of symphonies, casting the famous Adagietto as its emotional heart, with a tempo slightly slower than some but not so much that it would turn this love poem into a dirge. The opening funeral march had both pace and portent and the finale was allowed to revel in its often unbridled joyfulness – a celebratory way of underlining the neat symmetry of the concert as a whole.