Proms 2015: Luca Francesconi – Duende – The Dark Notes (UK Première)

by 5:4

The concerto form is a popular one for new works at the Proms, and the most recent, Luca Francesconi‘s Duende – The Dark Notes (originally intended for the 2014 Proms), has, i think, set the bar higher than any of the last few years. ‘Duende’ is a somewhat complex Spanish term implying aspects of heightened emotional response to artistic stimulus, which the work’s soloist, violinist Leila Josefowicz, summarises as a “hypnotic, demonic zone in which a performer loses themselves in the feeling and emotion and in the physicality of what they’re doing […] and it can also be angelic”. To tap into this, and also partly to obviate the pitfall of rehashing conventions, Francesconi has sought to revert “back to primal matter […] something which is hidden energy; [an] unknown, uncharted land which is within each one of us, beyond originality”.

In seeking this end, Francesconi has arrived at a music devoid of obvious allusion or affectation, audibly committed to its large-scale, dramatically arch sense of internal narrative—which is nonetheless strikingly original. The violin is absolutely at the helm; everything begins with it, materialising out of flashes of high arpeggio, inciting an array of slashes in the sonic stratosphere. From the outset, we’re in the realm of cadenza, and even when Francesconi abruptly expands and lowers the registral bandwidth, the soloist navigates the leap like a veteran gymnast. Pulse is barely glimpsed, yet movement is constant, often inversely proportional to the apparent ‘heat’ of the music: when it cools and recedes, the soloist darts around with quicksilver rapidity, faster than ever, behaviour that proves irresistable to the rest of the orchestra (particularly the strings), making everything run at breakneck speed. Even during more sustained notes—contrasts begin to manifest early on—there’s still a sense of onward momentum and continuity, as well as a growing sense of the violin’s melodic content (evolving from its earlier gestural mannerisms). The contrasts grow into an increasingly warm kind of consonance where the violin is prepared to take an ornamental role; these moments become very beautiful, lyricism flecked with some slightly cantankerous retorts from an accordion.

Comprising around a third of the piece, it sets the tone of much that follows, both in terms of the music’s diversity and beauty, its unpredictable sense of direction and the preeminence of the soloist. Passing through five movements, Duende – The Dark Notes progresses via gruff string loops into a clattery landscape of non-stop scurrying (the accordion rearing its head again), culminating in the brass finally finding their feet, the work’s first truly climactic moment. Francesconi then erases all this (triggered by the accordion; one senses the composer’s presence in this instrument) and sets up something polarised: isolated pitches that, over time, protrude and prolong into something that could be called melodic. Having been lost briefly in the preceding mayhem, the violin is at the heart of this soft tenderness, music that becomes exquisitely intimate, coloured with oblique harmonies. A rude tuba breaks the spell and the pace instantly returns, the soloist practically shocked into activity, leading to an amazing series of descending ‘smears’. The early sense of cadenza returns and leads to a bewilderingly detailed extended solo passage that’s almost as exhausting to listen to as it must be to perform (evoking the ghosts of Tartini and Paganini). A feat of fantastical imagination, it fades into soft orchestral undulations and a vague mellifluous texture like slow-motion water droplets, the violin drawing straight lines in the air, before cheekily absconding in a curt, arpeggio sign-off.

Concertos don’t come much more sublime and exhilarating than this; Duende – The Dark Notes manages both to sound utterly fresh and even, at times, a bit odd, yet always inviting and involving, and emotionally it packs a hell of a punch. A superlative achievement, and not just on the composer’s part; this UK première performance, given by Leila Josefowicz with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki, is deeply impressive, clarifying the quantities of detail within Francesconi’s phantasmagorical music.


Luca Francesconi - Duende – The Dark Notes
  • Loved it! (57%, 26 Votes)
  • Liked it (26%, 12 Votes)
  • Meh (13%, 6 Votes)
  • Disliked it (4%, 2 Votes)
  • Hated it! (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 46

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Colin Rose

first commissioned piece at the proms so far I have listen to the end, and then again, of the rather random selection of other pieces the ends i know not, there has been some right dreary rubbish

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