Susanna Mälkki, current Musical Director of the trail-blazing new music specialists Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg in a concert showcasing two French impressionists’ love affair with Spain, Brice Pauset’s fascination with the symphony orchestra’s timbral spectrum, and Alexander Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy.

Johannes Vermeer, The Geographer (c. 1668–69), Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
Johannes Vermeer, The Geographer (c. 1668–69), Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

Andalucía’s favourite musical son, Manuel de Falla, once joked that “Frenchman write the best Spanish music”, and indeed the country and its evocative cultural imagery would prove to be an important influence on the compositional output of both Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.

Mälkki was an energetic and dynamic presence throughout the concert, resulting in some terrific moments. The opening of Debussy’s Ibéria suite was enchanting; scented woodwinds drifting in and out of the tambourine’s distant dance steps, delicately played by Jochen Schorer.

Mälkki’s interpretation was impressively clear in structure and form, and there were a number of folkloristic, percussion-infused moments of vim and vigour. At certain points, however, I longed for a degree more sun-drenched sensuality, a richer sound, a more dangerous, hot-blooded romance. I longed for her to take each melody a little more lovingly in her hand, and to care for it from its first breath to its last.

Brice Pauset’s Symphony no. 4, scored for solo piano and orchestra, takes its inspiration from Jan Vermeer’s oil painting The Geographer. Painted in 1669, when the world was embarking on its age of “enlightenment”, the scientist in question is a fascinating subject, his distant stare betraying a very human insecurity as he attempts to make sense of the boundaries of our vast planet with a blank sheet and a pair of compasses.

The acquisition of knowledge goes hand in hand with a certain frailty, however; indeed, enlightenment provides just as many questions as it answers. Much of Pauset’s writing is texturally dense, yet appears stark and translucent; seemingly sure, and yet self-questioning and brittle. The opening of the work portrays this most human of conditions grippingly, icy, breathless harmonics staring into a landscape of spluttering, fluttering objects in the distance, imaginatively scored for the lower woodwind register.

The solo piano’s role is an unorthodox one, and it is certainly worth keeping in mind that the work is indeed a symphony and not a piano concerto, despite the piano being placed at the front of the stage. There were the expected passages of fiendish virtuosity, unassumingly dealt with by the excellent Nicolas Hodges, but they weren't thematic in nature, colouring instead the orchestral texture.

It was in the rather anti-virtuosic coda where Hodges’ lean, spellbinding form of lyricism had its greatest effect, single notes picking their subtle way through a flute’s whispered breath-tone, or the feather-light touch of a textured drumstick on a woodblock.

Ravel’s Alborado del gracioso was again strikingly clear and precise, and delivered with real panache by both conductor and orchestra. There were excellent woodwind solos to open, brilliant, flashing trumpets and a sweeping, joyous conclusion which belied the one or two slightly tentative moments which had preceded it. Eckhart Hübner’s exceptional bassoon solo in the lyric middle section was also deserving of mention.

Alexander Scriabin must have been a quite remarkable personality. Heavily influenced by mysticism and synaesthesia, his (uncompleted) magnum opus was to have been a seven-day work of art in the foothills of the Himalayas, involving music, dance, colour, incense and a form of moving architecture, culminating in “collective ecstasy” for the two thousand members of the public he had imagined, or “participants”, as he preferred to call them. The focal point of the work was to have been Scriabin himself: after all, he did once famously write in one of his numerous notebooks and diaries, “I am God”. The end of the world as we know it was to have followed.

If this heady mix of philosophy and art seems difficult to make sense of, the main body of his hypnotic Poem of Ecstasy can be a similarly confusing experience. Eleven or more different melodic patterns provide the work’s structure, but it is impossible to pick them out of the thick, swirling maelstrom which rises, falls and swells.

Mälkki and her charges produced a sound which impressed in its balance, the complex, layered string writing well moulded from the podium and sensitively played. The blinding, earth-shuddering ecstasy of the final passages were resonant and never forced, a life-affirming arrival which was greeted with thunderous applause.