Pierre Boulez, Luca Francesconi and Gustav Holst may not seem the most obvious bedfellows. Their aesthetic stances are certainly distant from one another, and the works on the programme for Prom 13 spanned almost a century. What they do have in common, though, is an instinct for orchestral colour and a fascination with sonority, something which Susanna Mälkki and the BBC Symphony Orchestra relished. The performance wasn't without its flaws, but the combination of gestural conviction and tonal range was both engaging and enjoyable.

Susanna Mälkki © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Susanna Mälkki
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Boulez's Notations may be short in length, but they are rich in content. Mälkki chose to emphasise the gestural aspect of the music, highlighting the dramatic aspect of the developing material. From the Debussian luxuriance of Modéré – Fantasque to the propulsive Stravinskian rhythms of Très vif – Strident, the Notations were painted with vivid colour and spirit by the huge forces gathered by the score. Balancing detail and impact, Mälkki inspired a textural clarity which was just as suited to the fantastical haze of the first Notation to the martellato articulation of Notation IV.

What shone through in this performance was the clarity of Boulez's thought, even in the most complex reaches of Notation II's uncompromising counterpoint. Every piece was perfectly characterised, and the orchestra's attention to detail only proved that not a note was wasted in these massive scores. Even in the orientalist Notation VII, Mälkki emphasised the carefully-constructed rhythmic and textural layers that make up the languidly Impressionistic surface. This was a performance that let the sheer quality of Boulez's music speak for itself.

Duende: The Dark Notes received its première in 2013, and this Prom was its UK debut. Although ideal for bringing the piece to a wide audience, the setting of the Royal Albert Hall was altogether less suitable. For a great deal of the piece, Leila Josefowicz was lost within the texture; a shame, because this was another of her characteristically spirited performances. A drier acoustic would do it greater justice, particularly given the intricacy of the orchestral textures.

The piece explores the idea of “Duende”, the demonic spirit of flamenco, depicting the tension between extremes (in this case, high and low registers) from which the art form takes its energy. Josefowicz was the centre of gravity, so to speak, with the rest of the orchestra responding to her gestures, magnifying or challenging them. The work began at the dizzy heights, with bird-like chirrupings, delicately fragmented ideas, and an insistent C appearing as a reference point. Over the course of this movement – which slightly overstayed its welcome – the registral range expanded downwards, introducing the opposition which would determine the rest of the work.

A brief, quirky second movement acted as a palate-cleanser, before the central movement of the work pitted Josefowicz against a backdrop of chaotic glissandi and pinging reference points. This was followed by the “Ritual”, a solemn, almost static movement reminiscent of Stravinsky which Francesconi describes as the heart of the work. It seemed to me, though, that the concerto was directed towards soloist's final cadenza, in which Josefowicz seemed to “break loose” in a raw, gutsy display: a dazzling conclusion to the performance, if you will.

The Planets brought out a completely different side of Mälkki. Her conducting became much more physically involved as she put the orchestra through its paces, often pushing the players to their limits. Mars was sprightly rather than heavy, with a driving tempo which threatened to undo the ensemble. The tempo rarely felt settled during the work, and frequently seemed a little more brisk than the orchestra would have liked. 

Jupiter displayed this problem most of all, gutsy brass melodies never feeling quite in line with the beat, and some wind filigree was less than precise. The big tune was as grand as any you'll hear on the Last Night though, and the BBC SO showed itself throughout the suite as capable of real nuance even in fortissimo.

By contrast, some of the quieter music suffered. The pearly horn solo that opens Venus was unfortunately mezzo-forte, earth-bound rather than cosmic, and intonation issues plagued the string solos, though the movement's balmy, pulsating wind chords were excellently rendered.

Mälkki's unsentimental tempi worked well in Saturn and Neptune, the orchestral sound in the latter uncannily distant and eerie. However, the contribution of the female voices of the Elysian Singers at the very end somewhat marred the work's otherworldly conclusion: the combination of too few singers and too much force spoilt both the tone and intonation, bringing the audience back to earth with a bump before drifting off into the ether.