Thomas Larcher made quite an impression in London a few years
ago when he came to perform his new piano concerto with the
London Sinfonietta. Böse Zellen - translated here as
‘Malign Cells’ although I seem to remember the Sinfonietta opting
for ‘Free Radicals’ - did the rounds of the European new music
scene in much the same way as Wolfgang Rihm’s Jagden und
Formen had a few years previously. They are very different
works, but both are of such quality, substance and originality
that both London premieres seemed like Zeitgeist-defining events.
For this recording Larcher has handed over performing duties to his young compatriot Till Fellner. Both are gifted pianists, and Fellner’s reading is as competent as the composer’s. It is an interesting choice for Fellner, given that not so long ago he was known primarily as a protégé of Alfred Brendel. His mentor wouldn’t touch this sort of repertoire with a barge-pole, so perhaps Fellner is taking the opportunity to move out of Brendel’s shadow.
The use of objects on the strings of the piano struck me as a particularly visual aspect of the work in live performance, but the unique timbres that result are so distinctive that little is lost in the transfer to audio recording. The most striking effect is the use of a large metal sphere, which is rolled across the strings as the key is depressed. This dampens the fundamental but allows the harmonics to sound, and as they do so from both sides of the ball, simultaneous ascending and descending glissandos sound as if it is slowly rolled across the string.
Interestingly, the use of prepared piano does not have the
effect of evoking John Cage. Some of the music is fast and rhythmic,
and when played on muted strings distantly recalls the Sonatas
and Interludes, but beyond that, this is clearly music from
a different culture and time. Larcher’s aesthetic is difficult
to categorise; he has obviously distanced himself from avant-garde
modernism - if such a thing still exists - yet his engagement
with more traditional notions of voice leading, orchestral hierarchy
and genre do little to link his music with either post-modernism
or reactionary Romanticism. He is not the only Austrian composer
to feel the weight of history on his shoulders, but it doesn’t
come across as Anxiety of Influence so much as creative engagement
with the vocabulary of earlier music. And while the music is
not Romantic in the sense of heart-on-sleeve expression, it
conforms to 19th century notions of aesthetics, in
the sense that every note and every effect obviously means something.
This is particularly evident in the use of prepared piano, and
is the primary distinction between this music and that of John
But without speculating too far about what the music means, its surface textures never fail to be of interest. Larcher doesn’t go in for complex of dense textures, and most of the concerto involves quiet prepared piano effects discreetly supported by a subdued orchestra. Repeated notes are an important part of his musical vocabulary, as are slow string lines doubled at multiple octaves. The ‘malign cells’ of the title translate to an episodic structure, with short passages fading in and out of focus and interacting in various subtle ways. All in all, it is a fascinating piece, and in a fine performance that does it full justice.
The other two works on the disc contribute to a clearer picture
of Larcher’s art. Still is a viola concerto, although
it is interesting that it is not described as such by the composer.
In fact, Böse Zellen is nowhere described as a piano
concerto, and the string quartet that closes the programme is
only so described in parentheses, where it also has a number;
perhaps Larcher’s relationship with tradition is more complex
than it first seems. Still is another work based on clear,
unambiguous textures and linear, bordering on melodic solo and
orchestral parts. There are a number of allusions to folk music,
which are all the more puzzling for their brevity, although
they seem to fit quite naturally into the contexts Larcher concocts
for them. The folk music allusions align this work, and the
string quartet that follows, with the ECM brand identity. In
fact, the sound of Kim Kashkashian performing central and southern
European folk tunes on the viola in an otherwise classical context
recalls both ECM’s disc of Berio’s Voci and their more
recent Naherot. Larcher also adds a piano into the mix,
and there are lots of atmospheric string tremolo textures. You
could be forgiven for mistaking much of this for film music,
but film music of the highest quality.
Madhares, the string quartet that closes the programme
has been privileged with the status of title track for the album,
which is curious considering that Böse Zellen is better
known, more substantial, and given first place on the track
listing. The quartet is named after a mountain range in Crete,
and while it isn’t programmatic as such, there is a real feeling
here of Mediterranean sun-drenched atmosphere. There are also
some more folk tunes to bring the picture into sharper relief,
but in general this is a work of atmospheric abstraction. It
is another work that fits easily with the ECM corporate identity,
and I was particularly reminded in the quieter passages of the
ECM recording of Knaifel’s In Air Clear and Unseen.
Excellent performances throughout, and a particular mention should go to the young Quatuor Diotima, whom I think to be new to the ECM label, but who are more than capable of maintaining its high standards. And the high standards of packaging and documentation associated with the ECM brand are much in evidence too.
Thomas Larcher is a unique voice in modern music, and one that
is well worth hearing. While it is difficult to link him with
a compositional school, his aesthetics fit very comfortably
with the ECM ethos. That could make for a great partnership
further down the line. Long may it continue.