The CBSO gives the UK premiere of Thomas Larcher's Symphony No.3 ‘A Line Above the Sky’

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

Thomas Larcher’s music is always arresting. It can arrest you with a moment of wonderment like a rainbow suddenly arching across the sky or a tiny flower blossoming amidst a desolate urban landscape. It can also arrest you like a corrupt cop in a Raymond Chandler novel – violent, loud and ready to pummel the unsuspecting listener into submission. Not with a cosh but a 100-piece symphony orchestra wielding a regiment of percussion. In his Symphony No.3 ‘A Line Above the Sky’, receiving its UK premiere from the CBSO, the programme notes excitedly promised us, “timpani, cymbals and bells... empty barrels, baking paper, flexatones, thunder-sheets.” The tendency to gigantism suggests the Austrian composer is merely a purveyor of sound and fury. This symphony is much more than that. By turns lyrical, elegiac, blazing radiantly – a work of genuine musical substance.

Larcher’s inspiration was the Derbyshire climber Tom Ballard who named his climbing route in the Dolomites 'A Line above the Sky', which “speaks of a dream to live a life in the light, embracing the mountains,” writes Larcher. Its span of thirty odd minutes is like a highly compressed Strauss ‘Alpensinfonie’, but in Larcher’s own edgy, dissonant voice. Both works begin and end quietly, Larcher’s with pizzicato strings, in a threnody for Ballard who died in 2019 climbing in Kashmir. Larcher said his previous symphony was about energy, “smooth, kinetic or furious” and so, aptly is this one, from utilizing delicate tinkling bells, celeste and cimbalom to a howling winter storm. He can also sing eloquently as in the solemn and noble Brucknerian brass chorale capturing the awe-inspiring scale of the peaks. It’s a musical journey that will stay in the memory. The Hungarian conductor Gergely Madaras was our Sherpa guiding us safely through the musical peaks and crevasses – the super-size CBSO were magnificent.

Larcher’s work was bookended by Mahler. The concert opened with ‘Blumine’, the movement cut (judiciously) by the composer from his first symphony but a worthy independent piece, ‘a beautiful, beautiful pastoral’ Madaras called it. So it was; illuminated by delicate and eloquent oboe and trumpet contributions. Finally came the symphony itself. Madaras’s Mahler was lithe, light and thrusting: not for those who like it served with lashings of Viennese schlagobers. It’s a young man’s symphony and that’s how it was played – Nature waking up gummy-eyed, rolling over for another doze and then bounding up into life. Unlike Mirga in 2016, Madaras had the start of the ‘Frère Jacques’ theme played by a solo bass (as Mahler did) not the whole bass section as one misguided musicologist would have it. The closing peroration – the horns playing not only bells-up but standing up – was a stirring sight and sound.

Norman Stinchcombe

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