Tuesday 22 April 2014

Daring new works for piano and voice from Thomas Larcher

Thomas Larcher - What Becomes - HMU 907604
What Becomes - music by Thomas Larcher: Tamara Stefanovich, Mark Padmore, Thomas Larcher: Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 20 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Recent works by Swiss pianist/composer Thomas Larcher including a daring new song-cycle for Mark Padmore

This disc from composer Thomas Larcher on Harmonia Mundi combines his music for solo piano, played by Tamara Stefanovich, with his song cycle A Padmore Cycle where the composer accompanied tenor Mark Padmore. Larcher's spare, enigmatic style is not immediately obvious nor quickly assimilated and it is heartening to see (and hear) such contemporary repertoire on a major label.

Swiss-born Larcher studied piano and composition in Vienna, first being known primarily as a pianist and writing piano and chamber music mainly in private. Since 1998 he has defined himself primarily as a composer. As a trained pianist, it was perhaps inevitable that Larcher the composer would have a strong reaction to the piano. In his article in the CD booklet he talks about trying to get away from the piano's natural sound and how, for him, Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto and Bartok's Second Piano Concerto represent 'the last authentic high points in which statement, form and virtuosity are still coherent.'

Larcher was keen to elicit new sounds from the instrument and the conclusion of this train of compositional thought was Smart Dust (2005) for prepared piano. Larcher instructs the piano to be prepared with rubber wedges and gaffer tape. I have to confess that when I read about the work, my first reaction was to think that prepared pianos were a little old hat, but in Larcher's music, as played here by Tamara Stefanovich, something magical happens. Yugoslav born Stefanovich studied at the Curtis Institute and the Cologne Hochschule fur Musik.

Smart Dust is in two movements, the writing varies between spare and economic, and fast and furious. Larcher's writing is very textural, the work develops through variations of gesture and texture, rather than via harmonic or melodic development, in fact he seems to keep these latter two to a minimum. You sense the urgency that Larcher talks about trying to find in piano writing. But you also feel that this style of writing might have nowhere else to go.

In Poems (1975-2010) Larcher returned to the un-prepared piano, exploring the instrument's natural sound. The work's twelve movements are all short and the music is to a great extent tonal. There are clear hints of other composer and though Larcher's sound world is different, I thought of Bartok's Mikrokosmos. The titles of Larcher's movements are rather enigmatic. Sad yellow whale, Babu Chiri's house, and MUI1. These refer to personal experiences and memories, and the material itself often comes from earlier writing (including something he wrote when he was 12).

What Becomes (2009) was written for the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and had to fit into an ordinary recital programme, so could not use a prepared piano. In the CD booklet Larcher is rather scathing about piano recitals, referring to them as 'little more than geriatric museum tours by candle light'.

The work consists of seven short movements exploring a variety of textures, linked by interludes in the manner of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Parabolic Bike includes frantic high pitched, high speed playing inspired by Lennie Tristano's piece Line Up, which was recorded at half speed and then played at double the player's original speed. The Scherzo is highly virtuosic referencing Rachmaninov, whilst the final movement Flowing includes glissandi played inside the piano, creating some magically spare textures. But then Larcher brings back Rachmaninov for the ending.

The Padmore Cycle (2010-11) sets German words by friends of Larcher, Hans Aschenwald and Alois Hotschig. The poems are all short and Larcher sets them aphoristically, in a concentrated syllabic fashion, around which the piano weaves its magic. All the development is in the piano, it is the pianist who reflects on the words of the singer. The movements are all short, some tiny, and the textures are in the main very spare.

Mark Padmore is fearless in the way he pushes his technique, using not only whispering and speaking but fragile near falsetto and silence. There is something mesmerising about these songs, and Larcher and Padmore find a wonderfully concentrated intensity in them, in which the quiet moments and silence speak as strongly as the vividly dramatic passages. This is hardly a conventional song cycle and Larcher pushes the form nearly to destruction. It says much for Padmore's bravery as an artist that he comes through triumphantly.

Throughout the disc Larcher is exploring sound worlds and pushing his chosen instruments to their limits, seeing what happens if he breaks normal bounds. The disc comes with a short, illuminating, article by Larcher though I did wonder whether it might have been helpful to add a commentary by an outsider too.

Highly recommended for those keen to explore.

Thomas Larcher (born 1963) - Smart Dust (2005) [9.41]
Thomas Larcher (born 1963) - Poems (1975 - 2010) [18.28]
Thomas Larcher (born 1963) - What Becomes (2004) [20.01]
Thomas Larcher (born 1963) - A Padmore Cycle (2010-11) [24.38]
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Tamara Stefanovich (piano)
Thomas Larcher (piano)
Recorded November 2012 at ORF Landesstudio Tirol, Innsburck, Austria
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907604 1CD [73.21]
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