A UK premiere by Thomas Larcher opened this final concert of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s season. Chiasma is the third and final piece in their season’s focus on the distinguished Austrian composer. It made an apt partner for the Mahler to follow, since it used a large orchestra with some unusual instruments (steel drums, an accordion), had an important role for percussion and was kaleidoscopic in its constantly shifting focus on different themes and timbres. It was at times probably a challenge to play well, to judge by the number and variety of instrumentalists out on stage practising fiercely with more than ten minutes to the start, including seven of the eight double bass players.

Sakari Oramo © Benjamin Ealovega
Sakari Oramo
© Benjamin Ealovega

Certainly, it all came together for the performance, which made compelling listening. The strings were deployed with particular skill, with some entrancing lyrical moments, then leading the way to a mighty climax before a slow fade and an evocative brief envoi from the accordion. Larcher has said that he had challenged himself to compose a 10-minute piece containing an entire world, which he describes as a ‘compressed micro-symphony’, within which Larcher aimed to show a world with all its murderous amplitude, its tenderness, and beauty, and its brutality and futility. Further acquaintance with this dense, colourful and eventful piece might well show us that he succeeded.

It was Mahler who said that a symphony was a world and must contain everything, and no-one has ever called Mahler’s five-movement, eighty-minute Seventh a micro-symphony. It has been called other names, though, not all of them flattering. Stephen Johnson’s programme note claimed it is “no longer the Cinderella” of the series, but that still feels like special pleading for the least loved. Lorin Maazel, no less, said it was the greatest of them all, and tried to prove his point in three recordings from Vienna, New York and London, with varied success. Recorded timings have varied from 68 to 100 minutes, suggesting that the work still lacks a performing consensus, which seems extraordinary for any Mahler symphony nowadays. Oramo trod a sensible and persuasive middle path in terms of tempi and gave a generally convincing account, if at times one with a sense of taming a beast.

The beast really roared at the opening – “thus nature roars” said Mahler of the tenor horn’s Langsam opening solo, which was very loud indeed and less than immaculate. But things soon settled down into the stirring Allegro risoluto. Especially notable was the great lyrical ‘Alpine’ interlude at the heart of the movement, launched by a sumptous harp glissando followed by muted fanfares and woodwind bird calls. An especially baleful trombone solo ensued, ahead of the recapitulation – which has that notoriously tricky leap for trumpet. The principal trumpet for the work's premiere even confronted Mahler, saying "I'd just like to know what's beautiful about blowing away at a trumpet stopped up to high C♯." But it was nailed properly here.

The Nachtmusik movements 1 and 2 saw some fine woodwind and horn playing, the first of them in particular. The distant cowbell effect was less evocative than it can be – those herdglocken rather too distant here, but they still just registered (the eye helps the ear in such moments). In Nachtmusik 2, with its “amoroso” marking and restrained instrumentation, the violin and horn solos and the delicacy of guitar and mandolin created the perfect sense of an intimate serenade. Between those movements, the excellent central Scherzo, marked “schattenhaft” (shadowy), was more than spectral enough, a Totentanz which Oramo took care to keep dancing, even if the ballroom was undeniably a haunted one. The players were all superb in this, the most completely successful movement of the night. It is Mahler at his most instrumentally inventive and inspired, and Oramo and his musicians were inspired too.

The finale is hard to bring off and did not quite cap the structure satisfactorily. The opening celebratory tone is hard to sustain throughout the long movement and the eight episodes within the rondo do not uniformly hold the attention. As with some passages of the Nachtmusik movements, the old suspicion returned that maybe the material is not quite compelling enough to justify the length of its treatment. No Mahler performance is quite accident-free, and though the tension dropped, this was still well played – the horn and the string sections both had a brilliant night. Oramo used a score and consulted it at times, but clearly knows where the dangerous corners are. A good Mahler Seven to be sure, but I would like to hear them play the same work just after taking it on tour.

***11