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

In concert – Raphael Wallfisch, CBSO / Gergely Madaras: New Worlds – Sibelius, Jonathan Dove & Dvořák


Sibelius Finlandia Op.26 (1899)
Dove In Exile (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK Premiere]
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From the New World’ (1893)

Sir Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Raphael Wallfisch (cello, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gergely Madaras

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 9 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra amounted to a themed programme with late 19th century evergreens by Sibelius and Dvořák framing another of this orchestra’s Centenary Commissions in the first UK performance of a major work from Jonathan Dove.

In his introductory remarks, Dove spoke of In Exile as a hybrid of cantata, operatic scena and concerto; a fusion that has surprisingly few antecedents – one being Concerto on Old English Rounds by William Schuman, with viola and chorus as ‘soloists’. Here the roles were taken by baritone and cello during a half-hour piece whose texts, adapted by Dove’s regular librettist Alasdair Middleton, examine the state of exile from a perspective less about those emotions experienced in the adoptive country than of sensations evoked by what has been left behind.

Drawing on Medieval sources, Dante and Shakespeare then, from the early 20th-century, the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran and Irish scholar Douglas Hyde, to the Iranian-American Kaveh Bassiri, In Exile unfolds as a formally continuous and emotionally cumulative sequence whose traversal from the general to the specific is complemented by its undulating texture, enhanced with resourceful writing for strings and tuned percussion, which graphically evokes a journey of the mind as well as body. Simon Keenlyside gave a powerful rendering of the vocal part in all its burnished rhetoric, while Raphael Wallfisch (to whose mother, the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, this piece is dedicated) was no less searching as his ‘alter ego’ whose role takes in several exacting cadenza-like passages. Certainly, a work that should bear repeated hearings.

Making his debut with the CBSO, Gergely Madaras conducted with a sure sense of where this piece was headed, having opened the concert with a gripping account of Finlandia. Sibelius’s apostrophizing of his homeland can descend into bathos – Madaras ensuring otherwise in this tensile reading whose sombre brass, supplicatory woodwind and strings, then dashing central episode led into a lilting take on what became Finland’s unofficial national anthem, before the peroration urged the music on to a conclusion whose grandeur was shot-through with defiance.

There was equally much to admire in Dvořák’s New World after the interval, even though this was essentially a performance of two halves. Madaras’s listless way with the first movement’s introduction set the tone for a rather terse and short-winded account (made the more so by its lack of exposition repeat) of the Allegro, while Rachael Pankhurst’s eloquent rendering of the Largo’s soulful melody was hardly enhanced by peremptory changes in tempo, notably in the tense middle section. Not so the Scherzo, its coursing outer sections ideally complemented by the whimsical trio at its centre, then the final Allegro brought an impulsive response that kept its histrionics on a firm rein yet without losing sight of an intently growing momentum whose outcome was a powerfully wrought apotheosis – its radiant closing chord judged to perfection.

So, a well-conceived and finely executed concert featuring a conductor who will hopefully be returning in due course. The CBSO has three Choral Christmas concerts coming up later this month, then can be heard on January 9th in a Viennese New Year programme to see in 2022.

For more information on ‘A Choral Christmas’ click here. For more information on the January – July 2022 CBSO season, you can visit the orchestra’s website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on Jonathan Dove, Gergely Madaras, Sir Simon Keenlyside and Raphael Wallfisch.