We’re used to the idea that a composition takes the audience on a journey, but they can also testify to the journey taken by the composer when they created it. At Symphony Hall on Thursday, we were treated to three very different such journeys with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, of increasing fearlessness.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla © Benjamin Ealovega
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
© Benjamin Ealovega

The most safe and sedate was Elgar’s Cello Concerto, as journeys go the equivalent of a comfortable stroll round an English country garden on a warm day. A structurally flawed work and not a little relentless – once the cello begins it virtually never stops – soloist Johannes Moser managed to find not so much something new as a new way of approaching its material. Initially he seemed laboured, even ponderous, but it transpired he was treating the music in a spontaneous way, as if it were just occurring to him, rendering it a stream of consciousness that, in the first two movements at least, managed to breathe a little freshness into such over-familiar music.

Much more courageous in outlook was La Barca by Lithuanian composer Onutė Narbutaitė, composed in 2005 but only now receiving its first UK performance. Notionally about “a ship looking for the right direction in the chaotic ocean of sound”, in practice the emphasis was less on the vessel than on the waters upon which it was carried, in a kind of contemporary reimagining of La Mer. However, the idea of the ship was a perfect metaphor for Narbutaitė’s creative journey, setting out with a clear sense of the region to be traversed but unsure as to the travails and outcome of the adventure. Nothing at all was certain, in fact, from the in medias res opening – practically chucked into the water – through each unpredictable roiling swell that followed.

In her role as captain, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla steered her compatriot’s music with unflappable calm, often reducing her baton movements to almost nothing, seemingly looking out around the orchestra in search of signs of danger. On the one hand, the work’s lack of a convincing climax could be deemed problematic, yet Narbutaitė’s avoidance of something so conventional enhanced the capricious, erratic nature of the journey, along the way striking a beautiful balance of through-composed and episodic music, encountering ever-changing waves of texture and melody.

The most daringly intrepid compositional journey of all, though, was that undertaken by Mahler in his Symphony no. 1 in D major. Here was a composer setting out not simply into an unknown environment, but an entirely undefined one, where anything could happen. One of the most mesmerising devices Mahler uses to create entirely new forms in this piece is akin to the mechanism of a chrysalis, reducing the music to an almost static mush of suspended pitches. Both the starting point and a regular point of return for the work – essentially the symphony’s ‘default position’ – these episodes sound just as strange and disorienting today as they must have been at the first performance almost 130 years ago. Gražinytė-Tyla emphasised their weirdness, unhurriedly allowing them space to just sit and quietly stew, within which new ideas coalesced and finally emerged.

This was her approach throughout the work, treating its litany of episodes with great flexibility and its tempos as though they were made of elastic. On many occasions – including some of the symphony’s most memorable moments – this had the effect of emphasising the connective musical tissue, shedding new light on the marvellous ways Mahler managed (in some places, barely) to stitch together such an unlikely collection of ideas.

Above all, though, Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO took the sluggish, drowsy way with which the work begins and made it the basis for what practically amounted to a fever dream, where strange fanfares, grotesque carnival bands and nightmarish thunderclaps jostled, collided and fused within a bewildering landscape that continually threatened to come apart at the seams. This was real edge-of-the-seat excitement, and it made Mahler’s achievement – somehow managing to embrace and harness the work’s inner points of crisis and render them triumphant – all the more impossibly marvellous to behold.

One often leaves concert halls feeling exhilarated; on this occasion it was hard not to feel dazed and with a profound sense of relief. Against the odds, we had survived the journey. Trying to get our heads around it: now that’s another story.

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