CBSO/Madaras review – tumultuous, multi-faceted symphonies by Larcher and Mahler | City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

The pandemic played havoc with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s celebrations of its centenary in 2020. The orchestra is still making its way through the 20 works it commissioned for the anniversary and the UK premiere of the latest of them, Thomas Larcher’s Third Symphony, was the centrepiece of Gergely Madaras’s programme.

The symphony has a subtitle, A Line Above the Sky, which Larcher borrowed from the name given to a spectacular and very difficult climbing route in the Dolomites established by the British mountaineer Tom Ballard in 2016. Three years later Ballard died climbing a peak in the Himalayas, and the work is both an evocation of the exhilaration of life in the mountains (Larcher was born in Innsbruck, in the Austrian Tyrol) and a memorial to Ballard – the first movement a tumultuous, multi-faceted celebration, the second more introspective funeral music.

The plan seems clear enough yet the symphony comes across as a strangely discursive piece, with some striking moments but no obvious compelling coherence. There are fierce climaxes, aspirational scale passages and vertiginous descents in the first movement, as well as at one point a solemn brass chorale, as the music veers between tangled, piled up dissonances and easy – perhaps rather too easy – diatonic clarity. With an orchestra containing both accordion and cimbalom as well as a percussion section full of exotica, Larcher’s sonorities are certainly engaging, but in a work that styles itself as a symphony you really need a bit more.

Another composer with a love of mountains, Mahler, provided the frame to the premiere. Blumine, the idyllic interlude that was omitted from the final four-movement version of his First Symphony, opened the concert, while the symphony itself took up the second half. Madaras’s relaxed, affectionate treatment of the fragment suggested what his fine performance of the symphony later confirmed: that he is a sensitive Mahlerian who does not impose his ideas on the music too prescriptively but allows it to follow its natural trajectory, without ever curbing its ambition or, in the finale, downplaying its spectacular theatrics.

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