In concert – CBSO / Gergely Madaras: Mahler Symphony no.1

Mahler Blumine (1884)
Larcher Symphony no.3 ‘A Line above the Sky’ (2018-19) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK Premiere]
Mahler Symphony no.1 in D major (1887-88. rev. 1898)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gergely Madaras

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 12 January 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Pictures below (c) Hannah Fathers

Following on its customary Viennese New Year concert, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra continued 2023 with this coupling of Austrian symphonies – Mahler’s first such effort being juxtaposed with one of the most substantial among the orchestra’s Centenary Commissions.

Chamber and vocal pieces having established his name, Thomas Larcher has since tackled the symphonic genre with a vengeance – his Third Symphony, inspired by the ultimately tragic exploits of mountaineer Tom Ballard, considering notions of the elevated and sublime across two (more or less) continuous movements as articulated by an orchestra awash with untuned percussion plus an arresting ‘keyboard’ section of piano, celesta, cimbalom and accordion. The timbral and textural range was accordingly wide, though the tendency to veer between passages of amorphous pitch and those where an insipid modality too often failed to afford resolution or fulfilment – whether in those abrupt contrasts of the initial movement or more cumulative unfolding of its successor – meant the whole felt less than the sum of its parts.

Not in doubt was the excellence of the performance, the CBSO audibly attuned to the many expressive nuances of Larcher’s writing with Gergely Madaras (above) securing a traversal which endowed the piece with a logic and cohesion as might otherwise have been more apparent than real. Already performed in Brno, Bregenz, Amsterdam and Valladolid, this marks a further intriguing stage in its composer’s symphonic odyssey and certainly asks the right questions even if the answers seem, at least on a first hearing, to be less than convincing.

Much the same was doubtless levelled at Mahler’s ‘Symphonic Poem in Two Parts’ on its Budapest premiere in 1889 and while what had become his First Symphony almost a decade later does away with even a vestigial programme, it remains a difficult piece to make cohere. Madaras succeeded admirably for the most part – adroitly negotiating the first movement’s quirky unfolding from shimmering miasma, via folk-like geniality, to ecstatic arrival; then imbuing the scherzo with an appealing rusticity, though not even such subtle inflections of phrasing could make the trio sound less mundane than it is. As so often, the highlight was a ‘funeral march’ whose gaunt double-bass melody (eloquently rendered by Anthony Alcock) launched a movement whose intermingled irony and pathos was judiciously characterized.

Madaras duly had the measure of an infernal finale whose martial opening stage brought a visceral response from the CBSO (above), its strings heard to enticing effect in the languorous (but not too cloying) melody that follows. The central climax was finely prepared, and if more might have been made of that otherworldly passage where the main motifs are recalled as though through the ether, the approach to the peroration was vividly sustained – standing horns and trombones adding to the impact of the closing pages in their unabashed overkill.

It was astute programming to open with Blumine, salvaged by Mahler from earlier incidental music as second movement in early hearings of this symphony only to be excised thereafter. With trumpeter Jason Lewis heard to enticing effect, it here made for an atmospheric entrée.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on conductor Gergely Madaras and composer Thomas Larcher

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