Austrian Thomas Larcher (born 1963) deftly combines traditional elements with modern techniques. His Symphony No.2 (2016) commemorates the thousands of immigrants who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean as a result of the refugee crisis. In this often harshly demonstrative work Larcher responds to this tragedy with unmitigated vehemence, reacting to the “misanthropy” (as he calls it) of the pitifully understated reaction in both his native land and elsewhere: “I want to explore the forms of our musical past under the light of the developments we have been part of during our lifetime.”
Written in four-movement symphonic form, Symphony 2 expresses Larcher’s distain for those who are unsympathetic to human tragedy; intensified by dramatic conflict often generated by contrasting musical gestures and dynamic levels, the music alternates between soul-searching reflection and manic explosiveness. Stark brutality contrasts with disquietingly murkiness and dissonant harmonies make painful outbursts of emotion all the more excruciating, while consonant lyricism attempts to evoke remedial calm. Larcher makes use of Straussian harmonies in the second movement and Mahlerian mockery in the Scherzo.
Semyon Bychkov, who conducted the World and UK premieres, drew a hard-edged and intensity vital performance. Overwhelming dynamics forced us to endure the passages of unrestrained brutality while an undercurrent of unsettling quietude primed us for the next flare-up; and he deftly captured the dark, disconcerting aura of mysterious atmosphere that pervades the second movement and intensified the demonic character of the Scherzo with chilling malevolence. With gripping intensity, he attacked violent passages in the Finale that recalled the first movement’s outpouring of uncontrolled rage. Yet as fury gives way to a mournful dirge accompanied by the tolling of a bell and the music sinks to the depths, one sensed that while cathartic relief may have calmed inner torment, hope was not to be found.
In Brahms’s Fourth Symphony Bychkov concentrated on shaping phrases for expressive purposes while controlling the fervor of strong passages. The result was generally satisfying if not especially provocative. Greater assertiveness, ardor and intensity would have added character. Emphasis on broadening arched phrases sometimes caused the violins to swallow endings; occasionally wind coloration was too bright or pale by turns. Nonetheless, Bychkov penetrated the musical fabric to reveal important inner parts and maintained steady and consistent tempos.
It is sometimes assumed that audiences react most strongly to supercharged speeds and hyped-up dynamics. If so, this concert was certainly an exception. I was surprised at the rather restrained response to the Larcher compared to the reaction that followed the Brahms. Maybe it is true that familiarity itself is enough to engender a positive response, while newness, no matter how creative or compelling, requires more time to sink in.