BBCSO in Maida Vale

Heftige Landschaft mit 16 Bäumen
incidendo / fluido
Antennen … Requiem für H.
… gleichsam als ob …

Thomas Larcher (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Pierre-André Valade

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 28 October, 2005
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

“And he looks like such a harmless chap”. That was the comment of my companion as Philipp Maintz took his bow at the conclusion of Heftige Landschaft. This was certainly a detailed work, representing a visual landscape of trees, with well-planned musical gestures and orchestral textures, but it was definitely not a cheerful one. Maintz skilfully avoided the pitfalls of creating sound-effects in place of music, instead conjuring a truly musical evocation of the bleak images he was drawing on.

There is always going to be a collision of symbolic planes when a composer attempts to represent two sensory mediums – sight and sound – using just one. Were we listening to a picture of a scene, or being transported into it?

Beautifully crafted high-string textures gave us the cold, forbidding air, and cello motifs the creaking of old trunks. Were percussion events intended to represent graphically individual objects, or more abstract, real sounds? Certainly, the spatial positioning of the percussion and pianos suggested a more literal interpretation, although the latter seemed to suggest aurally the presence of several mandolin tuners in the woodland. However, at over sixteen minutes, the work lacked a clear sense of direction or development.

One couldn’t help but admire the eight-strong percussion section – a model of precise, efficient playing and musical clarity; that, and (I remain convinced) the appearance of one of them, after a particularly virtuoso passage, twirling his sticks, and returning them to their holsters. Sadly, the string section appeared to play with the self-assured, detached boredom born of knowing that at least half-a-dozen other players are covering your part.

Much more musically mature was York Höller’s Aura, with prominent piano and harp passages providing a focus for the string-based ‘aura’. Here, the “24 note tone gestalt” Höller utilised was undisguised, but the superbly crafted combinations of motivic elements and the more static ‘aura’ gave rise to exciting and evocative harmonic colours. The contrasting chamber and tutti sections could perhaps have been handled more dramatically, so as to add to the large-scale shape of the work – a shape in which the pervasive influence of Stockhausen, Höller’s one-time mentor, could be discerned.

In contrast to the opening work, Staud’s …gleichsam als ob… made more use of sound for sound’s sake. Percussion effects, slow, layered portamento strings, and penetrating harmonics all made an obvious appearance. The writing was brave, with monumental rhythmic passages, complex percussion sections and a final, brass-driven climax. Elements of sensitive tonal interplay, however, with a prolonged exploration of timbral similarities and differences, did not provide the musical interest required by a piece of this length.

The solo piano pieces, sandwiched between the larger works, were just the opposite. Even before Thomas Larcher made his stately way on to the platform, there was a row of small boulders and a pile of pebbles in front of the piano to ponder on. Whispered possibilities of their function and pseudo-intellectual rumours of their use passed through the audience. Olga Neuwirth’s experimentation with pre-recorded ondes martenot tone emanating from the piano was utterly captivating, with the infinite possibilities of the relationship of piano and sound explored in a surprisingly musical, even inviting, manner. Larcher’s playing was both confident and sensitive, bringing a solid sense of direction to even the most chromatic passages and lingering over the fleeting modal elements, allowing the listener to recognise and digest these harmonic anchors. The transient electronic illusion of an ice-cream van passing through the piano brought memories of Ives’s Central Park in the Dark.

Larcher’s own composition was intelligent and thought-provoking. Yes, the stones went into the piano, and slowly bounced around the strings, while the pebbles were scattered at the higher-pitched end. The effect was curiously evocative, but not as evocative as the sound Larcher made by pulling a metal bar slowly down the strings and over the soundboard. Larcher coaxed timbres from an everyday instrument that I wouldn’t have thought possible, weaving them magically into tonal shapes before gently moving on. Experimentation of this kind is often mocked, but Larcher’s work reminded that so much is sonically possible if experimentation is treated in a musical and respectful context.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 19 November at 11 p.m.

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